The mental battle of powerlifting: Contending with heavy volume and fatigue

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Sport360's Alex Rea grimaces during training

Sport360°’s Alex Rea has teamed up with the guys at Desert Barbell to embark on a six-week powerlifting challenge, working alongside industry experts ahead of his first ever competition – Powermeet 5.0. In the video above, check out DB co-founder Patrik Hedqvist’s explanation of the three lifts, but for week four, we move away form the physical side of the challenge and into the mental game with Part I in this discussion. 

Progress is progress, no matter how little or small.

That banal quote has been swirling around my head throughout this entire process and particularly now as I zoom past the halfway stage.

For the first three weeks of this powerlifting programme, DB co-founder and powerlifting mastermind Patrik Hedqvist implemented what he calls the ‘accumulation’ phase.

Essentially, this involves high volume sets at around 70-80 percent of my one-rep max in order to hammer home good technique having rebuilt my form on all three of the competition lifts – squat, bench and deadlift.

It’s been brutal, and a completely different kind of struggle than anything I’ve ever experienced in my years of physical training.

Indeed, when undertaking the physique challenge earlier this summer in a quest to strip down to six-percent body fat, the battle was purely me against the number on the scales.

Now, it’s a totally contrasting grapple with the digits as it’s the gruelling volume of lifts to get through and the weight on the bar which forms a different dynamic to deal with.

Here's a look at what Alex had on his plate for week three

Here’s a look at what Alex had on his plate for week three

For the physique-style training, the programme was almost inconsequential because nutrition was the most prominent factor in cutting the weight. Hitting the gym was just a mechanism to entering a caloric deficit and ultimately, it was the lack of food which made that challenge so tough, not the training.

With the powerlifting, even though I’ve doubled down from hitting the gym six and even seven days a week, to just four, the toll on my central nervous system and my mind has been incredibly demanding.

Consider this, in a week block, squat, bench and deadlift made up roughly two-and-half hours of my previous bodybuilding programme, now it’s more like eight.

What this phase of my training has done, though, is eliminate the thought of numbers I want to lift on the competition platform because the focus is purely on the most efficient way of moving the bar from A to B.

Genuinely, I just don’t want to embarrass myself with horrific form like a rounded back on the deadlift or thrusting my butt in the air on the bench. It’s for that reason I’m pestering Patrik with videos of all my lifts and constantly second-guessing myself. Sorry, Pat!

But that admission leads into another side of the mental battle, which is learning to trust the programme, or to borrow NBA star Joel Embiid’s moniker ‘Trust the Process’.

At this stage, mentally I’m fatigued and little niggles are beginning to emerge, but remaining committed to the programme and having faith in Patrik’s plan is absolutely vital.

After all, repetition breeds habit and more repetitions leads to automatic reflex. Confidence will be drawn from the familiarity of nailing these lifts over and over again.

And besides, you learn to enjoy the small wins, like coming through five sets of six at 82 percent of my one-rep max on squat, thanks Pat!

There were times when I’ve been sprawled out on the gym floor, legs pulsing, chest panting and body battered in which I thought about stopping.

But then the metal on that bar is like a magnet and it draws you back in because ultimately, you know a big win is on the horizon if you keep your mind in the game.


What it takes to be an elite powerlifter

People might be under the perception that strength sports have a unique formula for success, unlike other sports at an elite level.

The truth is, the difference is slim to none. One can only come so far on pure instinct and/or talent, same as all other sports.

The rest is hard work and good planning. I’ve seen junior and sub-junior lifters, with talent out of this world, either stop lifting or missing out on their full potential, many times due to a lack of guidance.

Longevity is the name of the game and it’s important to remember that a lot of strength athletes reach their peak well into their 30s or even 40s.

Here’s three things to consider to become an elite powerlifter:

1. Long term goals

Look at the big picture and don’t get caught up in chasing dream results too soon. Strength gains will also reduce the higher the level of the lifter.

However, to become an elite athlete one must train like one eventually. Same as in all other sports. The difficulty here lies within the actual classification “elite”.

Is that the actual performance compared to others or the response to a given stimuli?

I claim the latter. Point being; train according to your own level and keep striving towards reachable goals. Do that long enough and you will find yourself in the elite.

2. Prepare to fight and grind but don’t compromise with technique

You can´t reach elite level without struggles, but you can’t reach there either if you are constantly injured.

Cold hard facts.

3. Manage fatigue and recovery

Does that mean take loads of days off every now and then? No. It means that you have a regime to follow which calculates fatigue and also allows a few weeks per year for alternative training.

Good sleeping patterns are perhaps the most important recovery tool of them all.

Remember that when you trying to get all pieces together. The important ones can actually be totally for free.

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