A Tour of an Elite Lifter’s Training Session, Why Coaches Program What They Do

Ever wonder WHY your workout flowed a certain way?

Recently, I’ve been sharing more of my training at Unleash’d Strength gym in Manassas, Virginia on YouTube. You can see some of my full workouts there, including some deadlift and safety-bar squat PRs. It’s fun to make these videos, but for serious lifters, I think it’s more valuable to understand the method behind the madness.

So, let’s take a walk through a full squat workout that I performed last week, so I can explain each and every movement that I perform – and hopefully give you some ideas about how you can apply my strategies to your own training.

Phase 1: The Warmup (10-15 minutes)

Warming up ain’t sexy, but if you want to perform at your best and avoid injury, it’s absolutely essential. I begin all my training with 3-5 minutes of steady-state cardio, usually on the stationary cycle. My goal here is to just elevate my core body temperature enough to break a light sweat – I’m not trying to wear myself out! I also will do some dynamic stretching for my upper body on the bike (typically things like shoulder swings and neck and wrist circles).

Then I move on to some very light mobility work for my problem areas only. I’m not spending hours hanging around and mashing every part of my body! Instead, I’m doing a couple of sets of resisted supination and pronation for my wrists, some banded movements for internal and external rotation of the hip and shoulder, and bodyweight or banded movements for elbow or knee extension and flexion. This whole process takes about five minutes.

Last, if I’m dragging, I’ll do some light “activation” movements to ease into the training session. This might mean a couple of sets of very light dumbbell flyes before bench or bodyweight lunges before squats.

Phase 2: The Main Movement (30-45 minutes)

The main movement, obviously, is the bread and butter of the workout. This is where you should be putting 80% of your effort (although, depending on your programming, that might be spread out over multiple “main” movements). Regardless of your program structure, however, your main movement must be progressive. That means over time, you’re adding weight to the bar or adding reps to your top set. Progressive overload is the key to progress.

My own programming is currently written by my coach Mike Tuchscherer. As you probably know, he popularized RPE-based training, which means that my daily loads are based on how I’m feeling on any given day. The protocol for today’s session was:

2-Count Pause Safety Bar Squat with Belt: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]

That means that I’m doing three working sets of 8 reps. The first, I’m leaving quite a few reps left in the tank – it’s basically a warmup. The second set leaves 2-3 reps left in the tank, and on the last set, I could only squeeze out one more without hitting failure. You can see those RPEs reflected in the training video.

One note on movement selection here. If you’re a competitive powerlifter with a meet coming up, your main movement is almost always going to be a competition squat, bench, or deadlift. But if you don’t plan to compete, or you’re in the offseason, the main movement should be some variation of those competition movements that better addresses your weaknesses. I’ve chosen the safety bar squat to put more emphasis on my quads and save some wear and tear on my shoulders during the offseason.

Phase 3: Accessories (20-30 minutes)

I’ve discussed the importance of bodybuilding-style programming for accessory movements before, so make sure to check out the video below for a refresher:

Here’s the jist of it:

  • Even when your only goal is strength, you need to address some smaller muscle groups that doesn’t receive enough stimulation from the squat, bench, and deadlift.
  • In my experience, the most effective and efficient way of doing so involves bodybuilding-style training, where you’re focusing on working the muscles involved and not just moving the bar from point A to point B.
  • The above two points typically consist of several lighter compound or isolation movements performed for 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps.

For this particular training session, my accessories were pretty limited. That’s because I’m training six days per week right now, and can spread the entire training volume out a bit more than if I were only training three or four days. I hit Bulgarian split squats to work on my quads, glutes, and adductors; and seated leg curls for the glutes and hamstrings. In hindsight, I probably should have performed an ab-focused accessory as well, to cover all the muscle groups primarily involved in the main movement.

Phase 4: Cardio and More (10-15 minutes)

Occasionally I like to program a little “free time” for my athletes – 10 to 15 minutes to do whatever they like in the gym, as long as it’s not heavy work and it’s somehow beneficial to the day’s goals.

For me, this period has consisted of high-intensity interval training after my lower-body training days. The HIIT cardio helps to keep my GPP up and bodyfat down even while I’m in a caloric surplus. Currently, I’m performing 10 minutes of HIIT three times per week.

Other uses of free time might include:

  • Extra work for neglected or lagging bodyparts
  • Some sort of “fun” training not typically found in powerlifting, like farmer’s walks or gymnastic movements
  • Nothing at all – rest is underrated!

Lastly, remember: all of these are my workout strategies. I do believe that some are applicable to other lifters, but you have to be smart about it. Don’t just blindly copy what I’m doing, but instead, think critically about your body and your goals. 

Then pick and choose which methods to try. If you need more help, remember that you can always check out my Unf*ck Your Program course for a step-by-step guide on developing your own perfect program!

Workout Structure FAQs

What's the best way to structure a workout?

There’s no perfect way to structure a workout, however, there are a couple best practice you can use. For example, a great workout should always start with a warmup, then progress you into your heavier compound movements which require more focus and energy.

Once you’ve completed the main working sets (compound exercise), you’ll then move into accessories that are designed to strengthen weaknesses and improve upon supporting and lagging muscles based on the compound movement you performed.

Is there a right way to flow through a workout?

Yes and no. It really comes down to your overall goals. Generally speaking, you want a workout program that takes multiple variables into account and some of these include:

  • Energy availability
  • Intensity of exercise
  • Time allotment
  • Training goals

These factors will all dictate how your workout program will be written out. In reality, a workout program can flow in anyway, but if you notice that exercises are chosen haphazardly and your energy is limited when performing various movements, then you might want to restructure.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers.

Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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