Article By: Travis Jewett
Travis Jewett is a strength coach and chiropractor with a clinic in Cherokee, IA. He is a member of the MobilityWOD staff and teaches seminars and workshops around the world in strength training and human performance. He is also a member of the Kabuki Strength Advisory Board. He works with people of all ages to improve their quality of life through strength and movement.
How specific do you need to be when training for a powerlifting meet? I really want you to stop and think about this question. You may have heard a lot of people who are popular in the world of powerlifting describe how important it is to be as specific as possible when training for the sport. You have to use a straight bar all the time to create the specific stress needed to drive adaptation. Many of the people I hear talk in these kinds of absolutes also complain about their elbow or shoulder or adductor or some other body part hurting going into a meet. What is really paramount in training is the application and management of stress. I am going to argue the specificity of the implement used is not as important as people think.
I hate to break it to you, but powerlifting is a fairly non-athletic endeavor. Louie Simmons used to say it was the sport for the rest of us. This means most people fall into the trap of exclusively training in a sagittal plane with a barbell and never really deviate. What ends up happening over time is you develop training related aches, pains, and injuries due to excessive training in certain planes and patterns. You can look at acute and chronic workload articles (some have been written on this site) and loading different force vectors (again, this has been written before on this site) and do your best to manage, but in the end, you have to have some kind of variety in your loading pattern to create a different stimulus.
I will take a trip back in time to the Bulgarian training of the 1980’s. They came out of nowhere to win some gold medals. The Soviet coaches were less than enthused. They went and looked at their training methods and noticed they were doing twice as much work in a month of training than the Soviets were doing at that time. They were applying more stress. What ended up being an issue was the extreme lack of variation. Sure they were applying more stress, but they were essentially doing the same six or eight exercises nine times a day four to six days a week (yes, you read that right). This kind o program will work until it doesn’t. While the lesson the Soviets took from the Bulgarians was they were not applying nearly as much stress to their athletes as they thought they could, the lack of any really variety ended up with short careers for the Bulgarian lifters and the Soviets ended up back on top. The Soviets were known for having lifters in three or more Olympics which is quite a feat. While the Soviets did a lot of volume in the traditional lifts, they were much more liberal with their use of variety, particularly as an athlete became more advanced. Do not forget the skill of weightlifting is the snatch and clean and jerk, but training is about applying stress.
If you are a novice, you definitely need to spend time using a straight bar to prepare for the beginning of your powerlifting journey. Practice with the lifts is an important part of the early phases of training development. Once someone has a good grasp of the lifts and is hitting decent weight in the lifts, (that is subjective, like a 5×5 with their bodyweight with consistent reps in the squat for example), it is time to start introducing some variation. This can be variation in volume, intensity, density, and frequency. You can start introducing slightly different grips and angles and even implements.
Don’t worry, I am getting to the point. I am going to discuss implement variety. Recently I competed in my first powerlifting meet in 7 years. January 26 of 2019, my oldest son (he’s 13 and it was his first meet!) and I decided to hit the platform. We began our training in October. He is a novice, so he went the whole cycle using a straight bar and a very basic progression. I just turned 38 and started using a barbell when I was 12, so I have a few more years under my belt. I also have an extensive upper extremity injury history, and I know at this point in my life, a long preparatory phase of straight bar use is going to give me trouble. I decided I was going to prepare for the meet exclusively with the Duffalo bar for the bench and the Duffalo bar and Safety Squat Bar (I did not have a Transformer Bar until after the meet unfortunately) for the squat. Deadlifts were done with a normal straight bar. I would not squat or bench with a straight bar until the meet.
I had gone to almost exclusively training with the Duffalo bar anyway in my normal non-meet training. It felt better on my shoulders and I didn’t get the flare ups around my elbows I would get when I used a straight bar for extensive periods of time. I never thought training for a meet needed to have the straight bar if you were advanced enough in your training age. You could likely do an entire cycle with other bars and just fine tune your technique in the last couple weeks with a straight bar if you felt like it. I am not the first person to talk about this. Donnie Thompson has been telling people for years to not be so fragile that you don’t think you can compete unless you are so specific. Same with Louie Simmons.
I also used a SSB for some of the squat training. I’m not sure who performed the study, but recently some people actually looked at the difference in strength and muscle firing comparing a SSB and a straight bar and they really didn’t find much of a significant difference. This helped confirm to me I was on to something. For some people who are really bound up in the shoulders and upper back, the SSB and Duffalo bar may be the best way to apply the necessary stress over time so the person can come into the meet healthy. If they start dealing with significant aches and pain as they approach the meet, they will not be able to continuously apply the necessary stress to reach their full potential.
I lifted in the 93 kg category at a USAPL meet. I came into the meet feeling great. I did not have any shoulder or elbow aches, pains, or tightnesses that I have typically dealt with in the past while preparing. This meant I did not have to miss any training time and could continuously apply the necessary stress. I ended the day squatting 424, benching 330, and deadlifting 494. These were the biggest lifts I had had in a meet in ten years, and it was the most I had benched in competition since I was in high school (and that was four surgeries and twenty years ago). I was happy to place third out of six (and as the oldest person in the weight class). Not once during the day did I ever feel like I would have hit bigger numbers if I had used a straight bar leading up to the meet. I felt prepared, healthy, and ready to go.
So what is the point of this? I want the reader to take a moment and reflect on their own training and all the issues they have ever had leading up to a meet. Look back through your training and see how much variety you used in the implement. This is where I think a lot of people have psychological barriers to variety, and like to blame things outside of their control when things go poorly at a meet. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people complain about the bar being a millimeter thicker than the one they use at home, or the rings aren’t quite in the same position, or the whip was more or less than their training bar. Deal with it. We are all using the same bar at the meet, so it is not the fault of the bar. It is your lack of foresight to prepare yourself accordingly and apply enough stress during training that you feel ready no matter what the day brings. If you find yourself with a high training age and steadily approaching the masters division, variety in implements just may be the key to your longevity. Remember, it is about the application of stress, not the implement.