Next up we’re going to explore how the actual training portion of powerlifting (a very big part of a sport indeed!) provides many benefits.
Here we’ll explore the training we do outside of competitions and how this has impacted our mental well-being. A following article will look at what happens during competitions specifically.
Competing at meets is a key part of powerlifting. It’s your chance to demonstrate the strength you have acquired and show it all on the platform in nine minutes (you get nine lift attempts, each a minute each). But for those nine minutes you spend a good proportion of the year, in the gym, training.
“…1302 minutes go into every minute I spend on the platform”
I train four times a week. Each session is at least two and a half hours long (a lot of that is talking). I don’t miss sessions. That’s approximately 520 hours a year spent training. I compete maybe three times a year. In a competition I’m on the platform for max nine minutes. So I’m on the platform for roughly 24 minutes each year. That means I train 21.7 hours for every minute I am on that platform. Or 1302 minutes go into every minute I spend on the platform.
This analysis overlooks all the other things I do outside the gym to improve my competitive performance too (sleeping well, tracking food, communicating with my coach etc.). In summary, a lot of time is spent training. It is the bread and butter of the sport.
Thankfully the training itself is a fantastic part of the sport. Here are six reasons why:
1. The contrast with the rest of life. Being present.
I tend to always look forward to lifting (especially if it’s with my friends).
It’s a different section of the day. There’s a different environement. Different goals to set and achieve. I tend to be on my phone less. There is (often) a clear delineation between ‘gym time’ and everything else.
In life there seems to be a lot of clutter and distractions that take your focus away from what your goals may be. Maybe it’s scrolling through social media or doing endless admin. In the gym, everything in your program is there to take you towards the objective. From foam rolling and mobility work to keep you healthy, to doing your top set of weights. It all is there for a clear reason.
And when it comes to lifting weights, lifting heavy (relative to you) can be scary. And exciting. And anxiety-inducing. And fun.
Although more true in a competition, in the gym you only have a few seconds when you’re actually doing the heavy lift. But you have lots of time before. Everyone experiences different feelings in this period before, but when you’re under the bar, most people are just thinking about the lift. It clears the mind. It makes you ‘present’. And I find this true throughout my gym sessions. I’m engrossed in the gym session. Time goes by so quickly…. one moment I look at the clock, and the next time I do so maybe 30 minutes has gone!
You’re in a ‘flow’ state.
Powerlifting helps provide me with that contrast and ability to stay fully present, which not many other activities can.
2. Routine and consistency
Training becomes part of your routine.
Wherever you are, if there’s a gym, you can train. It’s a constant in your life regardless of what may be changing. It can help give you some consistency and structure to frame your days, which can be helpful.
The gym and weights are always there for you.
3. Developing willpower. Learning that big goals require small actions taken over a long period of time
I love how despite everything else going on in life, coming to the gym I can make some sort of progress.
I can lift more weight. I can work on my technique. Whatever I do, I know by following my program I am steadily chipping away, moving in the right direction in order to achieve my goals. I know that the key to being the strongest I can be is training consistently and smartly over a long period of time. Each piece of work you do is there to take you towards the place you want to be.
We all want to make progress as quick as possible. Who doesn’t? But throughout your lifting journey, you learn that you need to put in work over time in order to achieve your goals.
Sometimes training just isn’t exciting. You’re doing relatively light weight or tiresome high-repetition sets and have no competitions in the near future to motivate you. You may just want to push some more (or less) and sometimes you just want to go for an unscheduled max-out – not the most productive training. But as you get more experienced you learn to trust the process. Some things take time, and you learn to keep chipping away over time to get you towards your goal.
You can’t have it all now.
But we live in the culture of ‘now’.
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We want things right now whenever we say so. When you are a novice, you make progress every session. You get progress immediately after you put in some work. But as you get more experienced, it’s harder to make improvements each session. So you need to start evaluating your progress differently. It teaches a different mentality. You can no longer just get stronger whenever you go to the gym. You learn a more long-term mentality where you have to invest in yourself over a period of time in order to reap the rewards. It’s a good lesson that lifting forces upon you.
And sometimes you don’t even want to train. Or maybe you’ve got to the gym but you’re low on sleep, low on calories and low on enthusiasm. But you’ve set a goal. It’s months away. But it’s your goal. So you keep working to chip away at it. Maybe you can’t do the prescribed work, but by doing some work you know you are decreasing the distance between yourself and that goal.
If you’re going through hell, keep going.Winston Churchill
If you were the only powerlifter in the world, the long-term mindset is easy to adopt. You would set the pace of powerlifting. There would be no pressure to progress at a quicker rate. You could be content ticking along and getting better over many years.
But we don’t live in that world.
Powerlifting is at essence a competitive sport and trying to be competitive right now often contrasts with slower and more steady progress. It’s a compromise. I have chased the short-term highs, of course. Whether that be staying in a lighter weight-class for too long because I felt more competitive in it, to chasing big numbers on the platform and missing them. I wanted to get the success. And I have no regrets doing that. If I had just stuck to the long-term plan perfectly, I’d probably be stronger right now. But I’d definitely have had less fun.
This long-term mindset requires you to have or develop resilience and grit. It’s all fun when you are making progress each week, and you can see yourself smashing your goals in 3 months. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes you may not be making progress, it seems.
Or you may even be regressing. Suzanne and I have both been there. Where we’re using lower weights to what we’ve done months before. It sucks. And sometimes you just can’t pin the reason why. But there are so many factors outside of our control. So many fluctuations. And you just need to stick with it and see it through. As Churchill said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going”.
Yes, you may alter training slightly if required, but you develop the grit to stick with the overall plan and see yourself progress again.
4. Back Yourself
Nobody really knows their true potential.
People don’t know how strong you could be.
And you don’t really know either.
And that’s fine. It’s somewhat preferable. Who likes to know there are pre-determined limits on their ability? Who wants to know that they’re never going to get better at the thing they’ve spent hours practising?
Others may say what they think of your limits. And let them say what they want. But the worst thing is if you start believing that you are at/near your limit. I think that when you start believing that you are no longer going to make progress, or that you’ll never beat your previous Personal Best in a lift, you impose a great limitation on yourself. And this will undoubtedly lead to slower progress, or stagnation with that lift.
If you don’t believe it can happen, you’ve already allowed it not to happen.
The point I’m drawing on is similar to the common adage: if you don’t believe, you won’t receive. The fact is you just don’t know what your true limits are, so it doesn’t make sense to create your own limit and set it upon yourself. It’s like if you got a fast car and set its speed limit to 30mph. However great its potential is to go extremely fast, it simply cannot because its own systems have created a limit. I try not to set a similar limit on myself neither.
So instead of trying to find out how strong you can be and what your limits are, instead just try to get to whatever that limit may be as fast as possible.
With powerlifting I don’t impose a limit on myself. I truly believe I am capable of hitting bigger and bigger numbers, making PR after PR. I believe it because I know it. I know it because I believe it. So my training is about accelerating my progress and helping me achieve my potential. It may sound self-important, but I do believe how you perceive your ability directly impacts what your ability is.
You don’t see an experienced lifter tell a novice: “Ok when you finally squat 100kg you should stop trying to progress because that is your maximum potential”. Of course you don’t see anything like this. Yes, progress becomes harder to achieve as you get more experienced, but you are often training with the assumption that you will eventually progress.
So I try not to limit my growth myself. Instead it’s about putting your foot down and getting what you can from what you have been given.
5. Learning to self-evaluate
Powerlifting teaches you how to evaluate yourself and your progress.
When you start training, using the weight on the bar is an easy, and useful, metric to track your progress. If it goes up, you’re doing well. But as you get more experienced, it becomes harder to make progress at the same rate. Soon you are no longer making progress with the weights each session. Soon you’re hitting similar weights for weeks, if not months.
So how do you evaluate your progress?
If you look at the load on the bar you’d think you are stagnating. But you’re still improving, just at a slower rate.
So you have to look at other metrics. Maybe it’s your technical proficiency. Maybe it’s the amount of work you can handle in the gym. Whatever it may be, powerlifting pushes you to reflect on yourself through various different lenses. Yes, there are certain metrics that are more important (e.g. total weight lifted, for competitive athletes), but there are various ways that you can determine your progress. And it can be motivating to see how some areas may be progressing, even if there is stagnation elsewhere.
Lifting with good technique is paramount in powerlifting. Good technique means you can lift more efficiently and lift more = win. And the sport encourages you to try and be as efficient as possible. Improving technique is one of the low-hanging fruits after all.
But it’s easy to get hung up trying to optimise technique and be ‘perfect’.
This quest for perfection is like that for the Holy Grail. A grueling journey to find something that probably doesn’t exist. Quite often our technique isn’t perfect but it’s good enough. In fact when you’re at a certain level and have found a technique that works for you, it can be detrimental to make any changes to it (even if it’s not considered ‘perfect’), since if it clearly works very well for you, changing it now could throw your training off-kilter.
It’s easy to be overly self-critical picking things apart with how your technique looks, when instead we should be glad we got a PR or glad it felt easy or even glad we got it done when the technique wasn’t good.
Of course it’s good to be self-critical and evaluative. But it’s about finding a balance. Powerlifting teaches that yes you’ve got to strive for more, but also appreciate what you have got. Personally, I do spend lots of time rewatching my lifting videos again and again, analysing my technique. Maybe I over-analyse. Maybe I just want to be better.
6. Challenging your body and yourself
It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.Socrates
Training to lift weights heavier than you’ve ever lifter before is quite beautiful.
You’re challenging the status quo of your body and more importantly your perception of it. You learn that you can do things you previously doubted. That new Bench PR of yours probably caused some doubt before you had actually done it.
You conquer that which once upon a time was unconquerable to you.
Suzanne describes how she’d get ‘psyched out’ by certain weights. She’d face mental blocks. Anxiety before a heavy lift. I think we all get this. But it’s a similar feeling we get before we do anything that makes us grow. From public speaking, to lifting a weight heavier than you have done before.
Powerlifting allows you to express the potential of your body.
There you have it. An examination of some of the benefits to mindset I’ve found through training.
If you know of people who powerlift or train with weights, especially novices, please share this if you think this could be useful to them. I would have enjoyed knowing more about the context within which my training took place.