Following a training program is crucial to success in powerlifting. Some programs are better-suited to certain individuals than others. Additionally, certain general principles are almost always universally better than others. But any structured and systematic training plan will yield significantly greater results than simply going to the gym and “playing it by ear.” There are many reasons for this. I will focus however on three benefits that highlight the necessity of following a program; confidence, consistency, and recovery.
Following a program will psychologically help you by giving you confidence. It will also provide a guideline by which to exercise restraint. If you’re an elite-level lifter, this may not be a problem for you. You will usually know when you need a break or when to hit the gas. But the average lifter (and you’re probably better off assuming you’re one of those) may sometimes feel as though their reps aren’t moving well, even when they are. Having a program that dictates what weight you are doing next or how many reps can stop you from underestimating what you’re working weights for that day should be. On the other hand, some lifters are consistently overconfident in their abilities. In this case, having loads dictated by a program will prevent athletes from overestimating their working weights. This will result in higher quality workouts, and this ultimately promotes strength gains.
The confidence gained by following a program helps cultivate a second benefit, consistency. A program fosters confidence which in turn helps a lifter be more consistent when it comes to getting into the gym. This is because a lifter will want to get under the bar and crush workouts. I find myself and the lifters I work with that it is harder to brush aside “today I need to do four sets of squats, five sets of bench, and four sets of barbell rows” than “today I need to go to the gym and get my workout in.” This effect happens for different reasons and varies from person to person. Perhaps you’re an individual who fears the unknown – you won’t bring yourself to the gym unless you know what you are up against that day. Or like me, you plan workouts in advance that I know I will enjoy, even if that is not the primary objective. Seeing a concrete plan on paper will motivate me to get to the gym and complete the workout planned. Ultimately this will yield better results.
Additionally, I have found that lifters (myself included) will often justify skipping a planned session my combining workouts together, thus reducing the days in the gym. This is often accomplished by taking the most important parts of two or more workouts and putting them together or by just putting two full workouts together into one mega training session. Neither of these are good tactics. There’s a reason we don’t cram all our work into a seven-hour workout once a week, and it’s not just because it sounds awful. For one, the microcycles (weeks) of your program are structured in a way that allows you to recover optimally. Shifting workouts around can be severely detrimental to this. Additionally, performing the movements more frequently is beneficial from both a technique standpoint and a strength standpoint. So, if you entirely replace Day 2’s light squats with Day 1’s heavy squats, you’re missing out on the benefits of higher frequency training as well as hurting your chances of adequate recovery. (Here’s some further information supporting the claim that frequency is good.)
As alluded to, recovery is another key benefit to following a training program. Whether you draft your own program, find one online, or have a coach write one for you, a program will maximize recovery while still allowing you to put in a large amount of work. In a good program, this will happen both on a micro scale (each week) and a macro scale (across a whole program). Your program ensures that each workout is challenging (or at least beneficial to your gains) while also preparing you for it. It anticipates when you will need a break and adjusts accordingly by prescribing a de-load that allows for recovery and prevents overtraining or injury.
This becomes possible by looking ahead and planning accordingly. Going to the gym and just “feeling it out,” while possible, is much less likely to work. This is a strategy that may be successful for elite lifters, but even they benefit from following a pre-planned program. This is because of everyone, including elite lifters, are liable to fall into the trap mentioned above; you will either underestimate or overestimate your working weights. This results in an increase in undue strain, leading to the potential for injury. Furthermore, your recovery can be difficult to internally evaluate. You may feel as though you are still doing great after six weeks of hard training, but it turns out you have simply missed the indicators of fatigue. By the time you have realize how fatigued you are, it may be too late; you may have injured yourself and need to take off unplanned time. The risk of injury can then be decreased by following a solid training program, which will limit the unnecessary time off, and maximum strength gains.
In conclusion, following a program is always better than “feeling it out.” Think of it as the equivalent of firing blind. You may hit the target now and then, however you are more likely to miss. Occasionally you may pick the perfect exercise, find the optimal weight to load on the bar and push yourself to the ideal level of exertion. But the key to success in powerlifting isn’t getting a good workout now and then. It is having the confidence to consistently hit the target over a long period of time while maintaining adequate recovery to maximize strength. That is where success comes from. And you’re much more likely to do so if you take aim by following a program.
Happy lifting – Devin Lane
Editors Note: Devin is a former NUPL lifter and current Northeastern Student. Find him on Instagram at @stoic_strength