May 15, 2017 Arian Khamesi in Programming

Heather Connor has had an explosive rise to success in powerlifting.  In only two years of competitive powerlifting, Heather became the first 47kg raw powerlifter in the US to achieve a 500+ Wilks.  In 2016, she placed 2nd at the IPF Classic World Powerlifting Championships.  She has also claimed the Open WR in the deadlift, and is currently training for the Classic World Championships in Minsk, Belarus.

To gain insight into Heather’s training, we sat down with Arian Khameshi, the coach behind her success. In designing Heather’s program, Arian shared with us 4 main principles:

  • Using an intro cycle:  the importance of scheduling a recovery period following a competition phase of training. 
  • Using ‘Light’ and ‘Heavy’ Sessions: the weekly structure that Heather uses to balance frequency of lifts, and the changes that have occurred over the course of her career.
  • Using Percentage-Based and RPE-Based Protocols: the importance of using these tools to effect training outcomes, and how these protocols have changed over time.
  • Using Fun: the importance of scheduling ‘fun’ sessions to increase adherence to the program.

Here is Arian explaining these four principles in more detail.

1. Using an “Intro” Cycle

Whether a lifter performs well or not at their meet, they’re almost always eager to get right back into training. For most people, this is a bad idea. Preparing for and performing at a powerlifting competition is quite fatiguing on the body. So, it’s always a good idea to rest after competing. And when you’re ready to get back to training, it’s always a good idea to ease back into it. This is what we call an “Intro” cycle. This is a short cycle that starts with low volume and intensity that the lifter can handle easily with low risk of injury. While the cycle may only be 1 or 2 weeks long, it’s a very important part of the entire training cycle as it prepares the lifter’s body for starting up normal training again. Many lifters want to jump right back into normal training which can lead to high levels of muscle soreness, stalling out quicker, getting joint aches and pains quicker, or a serious injury. For Heather, an “Intro” cycle is typically 1 week long, -20% of her baseline volume, and an average intensity of around 70% for the main lifts.

Baseline Volume:  Over/Under Analysis

Quick Guide:  The mid-point of this chart represents 'baseline volume', the average amount of volume Heather handles on a weekly basis.  Each bar graph represents how Heather's weekly volume compares to her baseline.  On the first week, she did 19% less volume than what she typically does on a weekly basis -- this would be considered her 'intro week'.  

2. Using “Light” & “Heavy” Sessions

Many powerlifters come into the sport having done some kind of weight lifting in the past. It could be bodybuilding, CrossFit, or just general fitness. When they make the switch over, they typically bring with them the ideas or methodologies of the previous hobby. This is when you get powerlifters who think they need to train 6-7 times a week and every session needs to be “balls to the wall”. If they aren’t on the brink of death after finishing the session and sore for the next 3 days, then they didn’t train hard enough. This is simply unnecessary and a proper powerlifting program won’t be designed this way.

For Heather, we started out training each of the powerlifts 2 times a week. The 1st session of the week would be high volume and low intensity. And the 2nd session of the week would be low volume and high intensity. Typically, the low volume sessions would be 50% of the volume of the high volume sessions. While the high volume, low intensity sessions caused more muscle damage, they’re typically seen as “lighter” or “easier” sessions as RPEs are kept low (5-7 range). The low volume, high intensity sessions are seen as “heavier” or “harder” due to RPEs being much higher (7-10 range). This combination of “light” and “heavy” sessions allows the body to recover and adapt, so it can get stronger.

Now, after about 3-4 years competing in powerlifting, we’ve moved Heather’s training to squatting and benching 3 times a week while still deadlifting 2 times a week. For squat and bench, the sessions are set up where the 1st session is high volume low intensity, 2nd session is low volume moderate intensity, and 3rd session is low volume high intensity. Now the 2nd session is about 25% of the volume of the 1st session and the 3rd session is about 60% of the volume of the 1st session. This allows us to slightly increase the weekly volume for squat and bench while still putting an emphasis on technique and recovery.

Volume and Intensity 

A "high volume", "low intensity" day at the beginning of Heather's training cycle

A "low volume", "high intensity" day at the beginning of Heather's training cycle

3. Using Percentage-based & RPE-based Protocols

Percentage-based and RPE-based training protocols both have their pros and cons. Implementing both into one protocol can be beneficial as well. It is up to the coach to figure out what is best for the lifter at what point.

When I started working with Heather, all her competition lifts and close assistance lifts were percentage-based. Close assistance lifts would be things such as front squat, close grip bench, and 2 count pause deadlift where strength levels can be estimated based off the competition lifts. Then, all her accessory work would be RPE-based. Accessory work would be things such as Bulgarian split squat, triceps pushdown, and lat pulldown where strength levels become much harder to estimate. Using this method not only allowed Heather to pick the correct weight for the accessory lifts but also allowed her to practice gauging her RPE every training session. This practice prepared her for future training blocks where RPE-based protocols could be used for assistance lifts and competition lifts.

So now, in Heather’s most recent training blocks, she’ll use RPE-based protocols for assistance lifts like 3 count pause bench and slingshot bench. In addition, she’ll use RPE-based protocols for competition lifts like a top set single or double when peaking for a competition. This allows her to adjust the weight up or down to get the right weight on the barbell for that day, which makes the programming more effective.

4. Using “Fun”

Many times, both lifter and coach forget what it really is that we’re doing. At the end of the day, we aren’t professional football players getting paid millions of dollars to run our bodies into the ground until we get replaced by the next guy. We’re powerlifting as a hobby and, in most cases, losing money doing so. Thus, while it’s important to have a scientifically sound approach to training, it’s also important to bring some enjoyment to the training when possible. The best training program out there is one that the lifter will adhere to. If there is a certain exercise or training method that a lifter enjoys doing, then it’s beneficial to find a way to implement it into the training from time to time.

A most recent example for Heather would be that she got the Reactive Sling Shot from Mark Bell and wanted to try it out. While I don’t necessarily believe it would be beneficial to her right now, we found a way of implementing it into the training. Doing so should still be done in a smart way. The coach shouldn’t let the lifter go and max out on whatever exercise they enjoy doing. We implemented the Sling Shot bench into her power bench day where intensity can be higher while volume is kept quite low. This allows her to have some fun with her bench in the middle of the week but not detract from her more important heavy bench day later in the week.

The same thing can be done with any other exercise or training method. If a lifter enjoys doing blood flow restriction or myo reps, then they can be implemented into the accessory work on the high volume day. If a lifter enjoys doing cardio, then it can be implemented on a day which still allows for the most recovery time prior to the heavy training day(s). Having some fun in the gym will likely mean that motivation and adherence will be higher, which will lead to better results.

About the Author

Arian Khamesi is a powerlifting coach who is heavily involved with USA Powerlifting (USAPL). Arian is a competitor, National Referee, Senior International Coach, Raw Committee Member, Coaching Committee Member, and Meet Director with USAPL. In addition, he is the current USA National Team Head Coach for the Sub-Junior and Junior lifters who compete at the IPF Classic Powerlifting World Championships. Arian has been coached by the likes of Dr. Mike Zourdos, Mike Tuchscherer, and Bryce Lewis.

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