Competition, for many lifters it is the highpoint of their training experience, having the opportunity to compete against groups of like-minded individuals who push us to showcases our strength and want to see us succeed is something that makes the powerlifting community one of a kind.
Although, regardless of all the amazing aspects and opportunities that competition brings, it is very easy to get swept up in the hype and excitement and compete so frequently it hinders your progress in the long term. This means we not only have to structure our training intelligently but consider the physical, financial and psychological stress that competition brings and organise our competition calendars accordingly.
With that in mind, today I would like to explore the importance of foresight when planning out our training and competitions throughout a training year. As with anything, there is a point where you can have too much of a good thing and competition is no exception, but how much is too much? The answer to that depends on your life situation, your aspirations for the sport and of course your current strength! For some people such as myself, I find that two competitions a year is a happy middle ground, it allows me to take care of myself physically, make intelligent programming choices and work towards higher achievements in the sport.
The essential point regardless of competition number however is having a plan!
For almost every high-level sport, coaches and athletes will plan and discuss every aspect of their yearly macrocycle, powerlifting should be no different. You must assess what needs to be done to achieve your end goal and allocate your time accordingly.
The dilemma is, just because you have the ability and time in your life for multiple competitions does it mean you should? Over the course of the 52-week block, you have to ask yourself, how much productive training can realistically be implemented with four or five competitions jammed into that period. As not only does your chance of injury increase the longer you’re handling maximal loads, but it also limits your ability to implement effective offseason protocols.
Disregarding time and finance, a very important factor is also your current strength! For athletes who are pushing high above their physiological capacity, the act of competing for multiple times a year becomes extremely reckless. A good analogy for this is to compare a normal car to a race car, you can drive a sedan at top speeds every day without a service for a fair while before stuff starts to break down. This represents newer lifters who quite simply cannot move enough weight to cause lasting damage by constant peaking, yes it would be counterproductive however they will still get stronger.
Although if you take something that can output more force such as a race car and drive it at maximum speeds day after day with no break or servicing, things wear down A LOT faster. This is the same for stronger athletes, despite being more attuned to heavier loads and higher force outputs, the human body can only handle so much.
Also, as the rate of return from training begins to diminish, one simply requires more stimulus or work in those higher rep ranges and moderate weights to generate further adaptation. Taking the time to peak multiple times a year doesn’t leave enough time to put in the work in the trenches so to speak.
This means that yes at the beginning of your lifting carrier, you may be able to get away with much more frequent competition as the physiological and neurological demands on your body are relatively low to what they could be. However, as your strength progresses, and your loads begin to challenge your physical capacity, the frequent competition will prove to be counterproductive to your progress and in some cases dangerous, how many top elite powerlifters to you see competing over two times a year?
Besides the apparent risk of injury performing peaking block after peaking block, the inability to have an efficient offseason and rebuilding phase will possibly have the biggest effect on your progress. It is important to understand that during our later stages of competition prep we are not actually providing our body with an efficient stimulus to be gaining muscular size or strength, the whole idea of the last 6 weeks of your competition prep is to condition your body’s neurological ability to exhibit the strength you have created. We are not gaining new strength we are dissipating fatigue to help express our current strength.
So, if we take someone who competes 4-5 times in a year, counting on average a short peak, a de- load and the week after a competition where no productive training is being done, the conservative number is 20 to 30 weeks where you are not getting a whole lot better. Yes, there may be some improvement seen from that period but not as much as if you took 15 of those weeks and devoted it entirely to offseason, hypertrophy and strength-based programming.
Allowing yourself longer between competition bouts also provides the programming opportunity to implement some really outstanding plans, reassess your movement and work on what NEEDS to be worked on for you to improve.
During high specificity competition work, it doesn’t leave you much room to alter technique or learn new skills due to the high fatigue and the demands of prep. Longer periods of offseason style training also allow for a greater ability to potentiate your training phases for maximum result.
If time is something that is not on your side, general hypertrophy work may be ignored in favour of more strength-based training, however, this is ignoring the fact that muscles with greater cross-sectional area, have a greater ability to produce force. So, taking the time to cultivate more muscular mass (a less specific hypertrophy-based phase) and then moving on in subsequent phases to condition it to produce maximal force is what is going to produce meaningful gains in strength.
Despite during those less specific phases, your strength will be lower, sometimes it’s needed to take one step back to take two steps forward. As competitive lifters, it is not our job to be at full strength 100% of the time, we need to be at peak strength when we step on that platform, not for our Instagram videos!