LS McClain is a USAPL raw powerlifter. In 2015, he won a bronze medal at the IPF Classic World Powerlifting Championships. Most recently, he lifted in the Primetime Event at USAPL Raw Nationals in October, placing 3rd in the 93k Open Division behind Jesse Norris and Dave Ricks. He totalled 812.5kg; squatting 285kg, benching 227.5kg, and deadlifting 300kg. LS is coached by Ben Esgro of Team Denovo who designs and oversees all aspects of his training program.
The 13-week training cycle leading up to Raw Nationals was one of the most unconventional meet preps I’ve ever done in my entire career. Best practices would suggest that volume decreases leading up to competition while intensities rise. I did neither. Instead, I kept my volumes higher than normal as I approached the week of competition, and never lifted above 89% for squats and 86% for deadlifts throughout the entire 13-week training cycle.
My focus in setting up this competition prep was to (1) improve my technique by training in zones that didn’t produce form breakdown, and at the same time, (2) implement protocols that worked on ‘strength retention’ rather than increasing my absolute strength. The thinking here was that if I could improve my technique under intensities that allowed me to work on form and retain strength already developed over years of previous training, then I would be stronger on competition day because of more proficient movement patterns.
Let’s look at my two training goals in more detail, improving technique and strength retention, and how these goals shaped my training metrics leading up to Raw Nationals. As you will see, by tracking and analyzing training metrics we can plan training that centers around key goals.
During a meet prep when intensities are supposed to be rising, a lot of athletes, even elite athletes, will see some form breakdown under heavier loads. Admittedly, I used to be one of these athletes who could lift an incredible amount of weight by brute strength. However, I knew this sort of ability wouldn’t last forever, and would ultimately limit my potential as an athlete. As such, going into Raw Nationals I was ready to implement a program that put technical adaptations and improvement as a priority. So, even if I had to reduce my intensities in the short/medium term and set aside my ambitions of winning, I knew that focusing on technique would be an investment that would allow me to train closer to my potential for many months and years to follow. To put it simply, I recognized that the best athletes in the World have perfect technique under competition loads. I lacked this ability, and needed to adopt training practices that allowed for more proficient movement patterns.
Over the 13-week timeframe leading up to Raw Nationals improving technique was not an ‘after thought’, but a full-focused effort. I only executed reps that allowed for perfect technique, which meant selecting training weights that didn’t compromise form. Putting ego aside, form breakdown was the primary method to gauge how heavy I went. For the entire training cycle, I kept my intensities below 89% for squats and 86% for deadlifts. For bench press, I kept my intensities below 88%, and only went over that range on four occasions. In the past, when I went over these intensity ranges I observed an inability to maintain effective technique. Therefore, by putting a cap on my intensities I felt confident going into every rep that there would be no technical breakdown. As the training cycle continued, I could complete more total reps and volume with these moderate intensities, which allowed me to get high amounts practice with sound technique.
With the goal of improving technique, the rationale becomes clear for this training methodology: keeping my intensities in a range that didn’t yield form breakdown allowed me to push volume to get more practice with optimal technique.
Strength retention is the idea that we’re producing a training effect that sufficiently challenges our neutral abilities to maintain strength already developed but doesn’t necessarily challenge our internal body structures beyond a normal biological state. The goal becomes training hard enough to retain our strength and avoid de-training, but at the same time, train in zones that balance fitness, fatigue, and recovery. The goal in prescribing training variables that focused on strength retention throughout this training cycle was to bias my technique, and ultimately make gains in strength through mechanical adaptations rather than physiological.
There are three metrics that need to be analyzed when structuring workouts around strength retention: Peak/Average Intensities, Volume/Baseline Volume, and Relative Intensity.
Recall, my form breakdown occurred at certain intensities across all three lifts. Therefore, the heaviest weights I lifted (peak intensity) never exceeded those intensities for the entire training cycle (89% for squat, 86% for deadlift, and only sparingly over 90% for bench press). To put this into context, my peak intensities were around a last warm-up weight for squat and deadlift, not touching any openers for these lifts until competition day. Again, the choice in selecting loads were limited by how capable I was to hold proper technique for those intensities.
While the heaviest loads lifted were relatively low for a competition peaking cycle, I maintained moderately high average intensities (around 80%) where I could still uphold sound technique. What this means is that for every squat, bench press, or deadlift implemented in training, I was averaging weights in the 80% range. When considering I squatted and benched three times/week, and deadlifted twice/week, this average intensity was quite challenging knowing that it was reached multiple times over the course of a week.
Below you’ll see how my weekly peak intensities (black line) and average intensities (orange line) were prescribed for squat, bench press, and deadlift.
For squats, you’ll see my intensities remain static over the course of my training cycle with my peak intensities not exceeding 88% and my average loads between 80-82%. Again, the goal was to maintain my intensities under sustainable loads, and focus on doing more practice/volume with perfect technique.
For bench, you’ll see my intensities remain static within the first six weeks of my training cycle, not exceeding 88%, with the average load between 80-82%. As I approached Raw Nationals, my intensities spiked above the 90% range on 4 occasions. The primary reason for this spike was because I had planned to compete at the North American Bench Press Championships two weeks following US Raw Nationals. The goal leading up to this international competition was to attempt a World Record bench press. Therefore, my training for bench had slightly different goals: I wanted to sharpen my neural proficiencies at higher intensities in preparation for this event.
For deadlift, you’ll see my intensities within the first six weeks remain low, not exceeding 79% with the average loads between 73-76%. As my technique improved, I could bring my intensities slightly higher in the second half of my training cycle, with peak intensities at 86% and average loads between 80-82%.