Lessons learned from five years without personal records

For well over ten years, the pursuit of mastery in my chosen discipline, powerlifting, has been the number one priority in my life. Everything in my life has revolved around my development as a powerlifter and I have made short and long term life decisions based on what would be in the best interests of this endeavour.

However, until recently I had not made any improvements in my squat or deadlift (two of the three competition lifts in powerlifting) for five years. Then this year I squatted 2.5kg more than I ever had before… and more personal records followed. So far this year, I have increased my best squat from 220 to 227.5kg, my deadlift from 267.5 to 275kg, and my bench press from 147.5 to 157.5kg, and I am convinced I am just getting started.

Below are some of the lessons I have learned about training, and about life, from five years without personal records:


A long-term vision coupled with short-term goals works best for me

I am very passionate about fully realising myself and what I have to offer the world, and I have experimented with many different approaches to managing my focus over the years. What I have found to work best for me, is to spend a lot of time creating a long-term vision of what I am working towards, and combine this with short-term goals to take me towards my vision.

For a while I tried working towards my vision without the use of short-term goals and I found this to be suboptimal. A long-term vision is so far away that it is not as clearly seen and defined as what is right in front of us, and because of that, it was not always clear what I should be focusing on, on any particular day or week, or what my tasks and priorities should be. Also there was no sense of urgency, and all of these factors made me unmotivated, unfocused and even lethargic.

For me the best approach is to create a long-term vision of what I want to achieve in life and then set some short-term targets (maybe things I can achieve in three months to a year) to take me closer to this vision. Once I achieve my short-term targets, I revisit my long-term vision and then set new short-term targets to take me closer again to my long-term vision of what I am working towards in my life.


Competing regularly is important for my powerlifting progress

Until recently, my last competition was in August 2017. I took a break from competing, thinking that it would not affect my strength development, and after a while, I started to think that I would like to increase my strength massively before doing another competition again. The problem with this approach was that competitions provided me with short-term targets to aim for and a sense of urgency as I mentioned above, which is very beneficial for motivation and determination when working towards a goal, even a long-term one.

Competing again this March, for the first time in years, is what led to me squatting 2.5kg more and deadlifting 5kg more than I had in years, through sheer determination to do so. At this competition, I qualified for the British Championships (BDFPA) in April, where I squatted 5kg more and deadlifted 10kg more than I had in years and at that competition, I qualified for the WDFPF world championships in November this year. Doing these competitions and the meaningful deadlines they have provided me with, is what has led to me reaching major all-time personal records in the months following my last competition and in preparation for my next, my first world championship.


My social environment is very important

Getting away from competing was also part of a bigger detrimental situation that was that I did not benefit from a social environment that was conducive to my goals. I was not around other powerlifters at competitions because I was not competing and both my work and training environments did not involve many other people who were working towards big goals.

A massive change for me was getting back into personal training last year, combined with getting back into competing in powerlifting again, both of which have led to me spending much of my time in the company of other people who understand and/or appreciate people who have extreme goals and the endeavour of taking an athletic discipline to the highest possible level. This is important because the people you spend time around affect your mindset and influence you in subtle but significant ways.

I find I benefit from being around positive people who are focused on big goals and their own personal development.


My training program

In terms of the training program I used to increase my squat and deadlift for the first time in five years, and put 10kg on my bench press, this is what it looked like:

Mon – Bench Press

Tue – Squat

Thu – Bench Press

Fri – Deadlift

Initially each session involved working up to the heaviest weight I was confident I could lift once without psyching myself up much and without much of a struggle, and increasing those weights over time. I also followed this up with a higher volume of lifts with lighter weights, often 15 sets of 1 rep with 1 minute rest between lifts or 8 sets of 3 reps with 2 minutes rest between sets. This led to a squat personal record in week 5, and to a squat and a deadlift personal record in week 6.

In the weeks that followed, I lifted many more personal records as I made various tweaks to the program over time based on how I responded to the training and what I felt was optimal. For a while I rotated between heavy triples, doubles, and singles for the Thursday bench press workout combined with a high volume, moderate intensity and moderate RPE bench workout on the Mondays.

I have also currently stopped the near maximal singles and am focusing more on pushing up my best 8 sets of 3 reps for the squat and bench press and on doing things like 15 singles for the deadlift, training all three lifts together every 4 or 5 days.

The most important thing is to thoughtfully move toward a personally meaningful short term target with a sense of urgency and determination and the rest will fall into place.


Some lessons I’ve learned about training programming:

·         Specificity of training is important – For the first time in my training history, I was regularly working up to one top single and this is what led to my first strength improvements in my squat and deadlift in five years. In other words, my training was as specific to the outcome I was training to achieve than it ever was and this led to my results improving in this endeavour for the first time in five years.

·         Specificity isn’t everything. As I mentioned, I have recently stopped working up to a top single every week and am spending more time building my strength through doing things like 8 sets of 3 reps and 15 sets of 1 rep, keeping track of and controlling my rest times. Also, as I mentioned, even whilst working up to top singles every week I was also always following that up with some volume work with lighter weights. Of course, even with this approach, my training still involves nothing other than the exact competition movements, performed in sets of 1-3 reps.

·         Volume and frequency of training are important, but you have to be able to recover. I made these improvements squatting and deadlifting less often and with less overall volume than I had previously. I believe previously, my training volume and frequency were too high for me to recover properly and that is how I was this time able to provide my body with the training stimulus required to get stronger, whilst training less often and with a lower volume of work than I had previously.

·         There is no perfect program, it’s just about moving forward from where I am now – I have many times, and still do, get caught in the trap of trying to think up the ‘perfect program’ for myself. However, this does not work as there is no such thing. What works best for me, is to employ what Konstantin Konstantinovs, who deadlifted more weight without equipment than anyone else in the world so far, I believe meant by the term ‘an adaptive approach’, and what Mike Tuchscherer, who is a gold-medal winning World Games powerlifting athlete and one of the world’s top powerlifting coaches, means by ‘an emerging strategy’.

I have an idea of what my general training strategy is and I set myself some targets for my next workout. Sometimes I change my mind during a workout, sometimes whilst warming up, and sometimes in the middle of it. After I finish a workout, I recalibrate and decide what the next workout should be.


Progress is not linear

Finally, I have always known, experienced and believed this for many years, but progress is not linear. George Leonard discusses this in his book about the process of mastery. He explains how, in his experience pursuing mastery in Aikido, he has found that the road to mastery is characterized by long stretches of the ‘plateau’ combined with short stretches of rapid progress. I think I am experiencing the same in my own pursuit of mastery in powerlifting.

To conclude, those are some of the lessons I have learned about training, and about life, from five years without personal records. I am keenly aware that we are all different and I do not believe that any or all of these lessons will apply to everyone. I know, for example, that having written goals is not for everyone. And Konstantin Konstantinovs, for example, found a lot of value in using many assistance exercises in his training. Although, one of his words of wisdom was also that we should all strive to find our own way, that we are all individuals and what does a lot for one, may do nothing for someone else. I believe that to be true and I think that the same will probably be true for what I have written here. I hope this helps someone.

*Feel free to get in touch and ask any questions you may have about this.