Powerlifters aren’t known for their incredible endurance.
That’s not an insult! After all, a few well-regarded studies have shown that the greatest strength gains come from resting a good three to five minutes between sets. That’s why it’s not uncommon to look around a powerlifting gym and see athletes sitting, resting, and playing on their phones for more time than they spend lifting.
But think about it: if you perform twelve total sets in a workout and rest three minutes between each lift, that’s thirty-six minutes of dead time that you’re probably spending on your butt. When it’s hard enough to make the time to go to the gym at all, is it really a good use of your time?
The typical answer is, “If you’re training hard enough, you need every second of that rest.” A lot of the time, that’s true. But smart programming doesn’t require athletes to max out on every set or go heavy on every workout, so while you’ll want to first consult with your coach, you can find other ways to fill your rest periods that won’t hamper your lifts.
“It all depends on your goals,” says Joseph LaVacca, DPT, CFSC, FMT-C, SFMA, an orthopedic physical therapist based in New York City. “I think working on your biggest need is what I tell people to do the most. I recently heard someone say that working out is what you want to do and training is what you need to do. Where are you falling short?”
Clearly, this depends on the athlete. But if you know yourself , your history, and your program, you’ll know which of these will be a smart pick for you.
1) Visualize Your Next Lift
Every day, science catches up with the old wisdom that meditation, visualization, and mental clarity can have serious effects on your athleticism.
“I have been reading research that suggests mental imagery can actually lead to increased strength outputs,” says LaVacca. How does it work? The author of one study suggests spending your time before a lift visualizing the goal you want to achieve, visualizing the lift itself, imagine successfully achieving it, and repeat that visualization as you’re actually performing the lift.
Afterward, replay the lift in your mind and imagine how you could correct any problems that arose. If everything went well, imagine lifting with even more weight on the bar!
2) Work Out
“The easiest suggestion is just to work the opposing muscle groups with some sort of accessory motion,” says LaVacca. “This way, no time is lost and you are creating a balance of sorts.”
We’re not talking about supersetting squats and deadlifts here. But if you’re focusing on, say, medium intensity pushing movements, you might be able to manage some of those oft-neglected horizontal pulling exercises during your rest. Mostly benching today? Consider some bodyweight squats, hamstring exercises or core work. Squatting? Why not fit in some lateral raises, or even some curls or tricep extensions – sure, a lot of lifters think that compound movements are all you need for strong arms, but if you were going to do nothing between your sets anyway, what’s the harm?
Again, use common sense. If you’re gearing up for some weighted chin-ups, you wouldn’t want to hammer your biceps. But if you’re not trying to overload your CNS with max effort compound movements, and especially if you’re nearing the end of your workout, you can fill your rests with some of that all-important accessory work. Try to allow thirty seconds of actual rest between one exercise and another to stay relatively fresh.
3) Work On Your Breathing
A lot of people have a disconnect between knowledge and its application, and this is especially true when it comes to breathing.
A full discussion of how to breathe when powerlifting is outside the scope of this article, but the most common advice is to breathe through your mouth and into your diaphragm, brace and hold your breath through the eccentric component, and exhale during the concentric component, all the while keeping the core braced.
It can be hard to remember all that during the lift itself. Go over it in your mind and practice it during your rest. But considering it can be a little tiring, give yourself some thirty seconds to return your breathing pattern to normal before you actually perform your lift.
The dreaded C-word! If you’re going heavy then you might not want to include these in your “rest” periods, particularly at the start of the workout when you’re probably hitting your biggest lifts.
But if you’re working out less intensely, and especially if you’re in the second half of your session, thirty to sixty seconds of kettlebell swings, rowing, jumping rope, jumping jacks, or even some brisk walking can do wonders for your cardiorespiratory capacity and your ability to push through your heavier sets of strength work.
Again, try to allow at least thirty seconds of true rest between your cardio and your next set of weights so that you can get your head (and lungs) back in the game.
You don’t want to tear your shirt off, but flexing the muscles you’re planning on working can send more blood to it may lead to an increased amount of muscle fibers being recruited. A few “mini sets” of ten seconds or so between sets can make a difference. Try it yourself.
Stretching the muscles you’re actually using during your working sets may not always be the best idea for maximal performance, as it may disturb the elastic component of your muscle and limit its strength.
But strategically mobilizing during your rest periods can be smart. Maybe you’re squatting and you have a stiff upper back. If that’s the case, you can mobilize that area during your rest periods without worrying about reducing your efficiency at the squat itself. The same goes for stiff ankles and hips.
“Get your shoulder or ankle open rather than just tell everyone about your ‘bad’ this or that,” laughs LaVacca.
You know your body and your goals better than anybody, and if you’re positive that, say, adding cardio or accessory work between your lifts is a bad idea no matter what kind of workout you’re having, then that’s up to you. But we’re confident that at least one of the entries on this list can benefit any powerlifter. Have fun!