My statement in last month’s TITAN SUPPORT SYSTEMS column as expected, brought the same, usual responses that I specifically commented on; “As one of the old guys in the sport, how come there’s still so much that you think you can learn?” More or less and summarizing what I stated previously, there is always something to learn, something to be considered, something that requires more scrutiny, and the necessity to always reevaluate what one is doing if it is to be done as well as possible. In addition to writing about the topic in September’s blog/article, TITAN boss Pete and I discussed some specifics related to contest warm-ups in deciding the best presentation for the material. Repeating what is known by much of the powerlifting community, at least the community from “the old days,” Pete, Jay Rosciglione, and I all drifted around the 148 to 165 pound classes for a number of years. I had worked very hard to take what was a probable “natural bodyweight” of 145 – 150 pounds in high school, to 232 pounds of “yes, I have abs at this weight” at a height of less than 5’6” for the purpose of playing college football. I held that weight or most of it after my playing days, in part because I would occasionally believe I had “just one more football comeback in me” as per my brief time with the New York Giants Atlantic Coast Football League affiliate Westchester Bulls at a time where numerous NFL and American Football League clubs funded well coached and well played minor leagues throughout the country and many professional players were given time to develop and/or recover and play their way back from injury. I also directed backstage security operations for a major record label for their East Coast tours, a number of rock tours, and one of the best known rock venues in the nation. Being 5’,5-3/4” and a hard 230 pounds was an asset.
When I changed vocational directions, I immediately brought my bodyweight down to a more manageable 185 – 190, a mark that did not require me to utilize food consumption as a second job. The joke among teammates while I was continuously trying to either gain weight or hold onto my bodyweight during college was that if I inadvertently missed a meal, I would also lose four or five pounds for the day. I would occasionally compete at a light 198, usually locally, and utilized powerlifting as a means to continue as a “competitive athlete” while teaching, coaching, and working at a number of other jobs. The time came when my weight dropped precipitously, as low as 128 pounds. Bringing it back up to the 165 – 170 range was both comfortable and easy to maintain. Though both were younger than I was, Pete and Jay also competed in a similar weight range, and through the years we became friends. Jay had the better physique and was a world class lifter, Pete was most handsome, and I was known for helping to edit Powerlifting USA Magazine for Mike Lambert so as a group, many on the scene knew who the three of us were. Over the course of a few years, some developed the idea that the three of us were related, “cousins” as the most frequent relation noted. This would have been positive but false of course although at contests we were often together, often helping each other (I coached Jay in a number of National and World meets, not that he needed my assistance), hanging out, eating meals, and when Pete began his TITAN SUPPORT SYSTEMS business, helping out at his sales table.
Pete was part of the early group of Corpus Christi lifters, a number of them of national quality and some quite notorious. They were as a group, excellent lifters and Pete competed in, attended, assisted at, and eventually was present at as many contests as anyone in the history of the sport once his vocation was established as “a powerlifting business.” The two of us, having “been around,” have seen a lot and one of the concepts that was muddied as far back as the 1970s if not earlier and one that remains what should be an obvious approach today, is the preparation for attempting heavy lifts. It should be a matter of common sense that in order to demonstrate strength by the means of lifting a heavy single attempt, “everything has to be as right as it can be.” Simply put, everything done has to be focused upon the performance of a single maximal repetition. As one of my long-time trainees often states, “This is not rocket surgery!” yet too many coaches and lifters just do not understand this basic concept. Everything being “right” includes a lot but when it is time to lift, one has to be prepared both physically and emotionally to lift their attempts. One does not want to have any physical factor serve as a limiting possibility. Not being warmed up enough would be limiting as the body’s overall temperature, local muscular temperature, muscle elasticity, joint fluid viscosity, and other factors will certainly affect performance. One does not want to be fatigued as every bit of available strength and energy (for lack of better terms) has to be utilized on the task at hand. Once the nervous system “feels ready” for the heaviest of weights and one “feels warmed up,” it is time to enter the platform. Thus, a balance is necessary and of course, the way one feels physically will affect their mental or emotional preparedness.
When powerlifters discuss “the greatest lifters of all time,” there are of course disagreements but one name that is always on a Top 10 or Top 5 list and often tops any list is Mike Bridges. He was the dominant lifter of his day while competing in a number of weight classes and rarely failed to provide a terrific performance. He did this in more than one organization and proved his mettle over decades. Mike, Pete, and I have been friends since the late 1970s and share many of the same thoughts about our sport. We all kept our training basic and what many would term “simple” while providing for a lot of rest and recovery, and maintained the philosophy that in a sport that consisted of making the best single attempt in three distinct lifting movements, the majority of training should be centered upon those three disciplines. Contest preparation and warm-ups always followed a similar approach. We can all agree, one cannot walk into the venue, weigh-in, put a singlet on, and walk under an opening attempt squat or perform any other lift. There has to be some type of progression to prepare the muscular system, neurological system, and mind to attempt a very heavy weight. However, noting the very important proviso that one literally be ready but not utilize any energy/strength in warm-ups that could be used on the competition platform, allow me to present a few approaches that do not work. All are examples that Pete and I have witnessed, none is fabricated and the shortcomings of these methods should be obvious.
Performing an entire and usual squat workout prior to one’s first attempt:
While this should dictate that one will in fact not have every available bit of energy/strength available for their competitive lifts, this is actually rather common. No matter what the “usual” or “standard” set and rep procedure is going into the meet, the lifter is required to perform sets of 10, 5, or 3 reps for example, for as many sets as would constitute a usual weekly workout prior to their openers. Common sense would dictate that doing eight to twelve sets of squats prior to a competitive attempt is probably going to produce a great deal of fatigue. Completing four sets of dumbbell press and four sets of flyes, a few sets of triceps pressdowns and dumbbell curls would be an obviously incorrect way to warm-up for a max bench press attempt although we have also seen that done but doing twelve descending sets of reps to warm-up for the squat is not as obviously negative? Go figure!
Performing sets of 20 rep squat sets as the warm-up:
I have seen this done more than a few times, with the coach later explaining that “the lifter had to get really warmed-up and the 20s weren’t that heavy.” Under any circumstances 20 rep squat sets are going to be fatiguing. Two sets of 20 is already forty reps of expenditure! Add to that the necessity to have some specificity in the warm-up that will then relate to the event/task at hand. If one only needed to elevate local muscular temperature and core temperature, one could run around the block and obviously, that is not going to serve as an adequate warm-up for a maximum squat or bench press attempt.
Performing sets to failure as the warm-up:
Warm-up but do not fatigue is the watchword phrase for contest preparation but taking things to the limit as a means of warming up is not going to allow any lifter to do their best.
Performing negative or eccentric reps as a warm-up:
By definition, so-called negative or eccentric repetitions are overloaded attempts, done with very focused spotting, where only the eccentric contraction is performed. This is an advanced training technique that was first developed in Finland in the 1960s and has never achieved a great deal of popularity although when done properly, this type of training can be very effective. However, it is so demanding when done as it should be that a great deal of recovery time is needed. Obviously, the inherent danger involved and the demands upon the lifter’s system make it totally unsuitable as a warm-up technique.
Performing one’s opening attempt as a warm-up:
Many lifters lack confidence in their ability and especially if new to the sport, they will be nervous, distracted, and possibly fearful being in the warm-up room for the first time. This can be extended to any sport. Coincidental to writing this blog, I received an e mail from my grandson who played in his first school-affiliated football game as a ninth grader. Many states do not have or allow junior high school/middle school organized sports relative to financial or insurance concerns. He has been an outstanding athlete on various youth league levels but this was his first “real game” on a larger, more organized stage. As one may have predicted he was a bit nervous entering the game and wrote to me, “At first in the game I was a little nervous, but once I made a play I snapped back into the tempo.” This could have been predicted and it is the same emotional situation that drives lifters to take an opening attempt as a warm-up attempt, perhaps multiple attempts with it in the warm-up room. It is the same country-born story of the big farm boy who rarely goes into town but encounters a watermelon eating contest on the day he does go in for supplies. As a large lad, some of the locals encourage him to see if he can eat three large whole watermelons within the ten minute contest time limit. As he does not wish to embarrass himself, he states he will return in ten minutes and provide an answer. He returns and says “Okay, I’ll enter the contest.” One of the locals asks why the young man now seems so confident and he responded, “Because I just went and ate four watermelons so I know I can do it.” Yeah, but maybe not the best way to prepare. If one is preparing to lift a heavy weight “for real” on the platform, it makes little sense to expend the energy doing it in the warm-up room. Noting two of the aforementioned warm-up errors Pete told me, “This was at a meet Hal Hudson put on in the mid 80’s. The lifter then proceeded to bomb out on the bench and could be heard complaining that he couldn’t understand it, because he had pressed the weight several times in the warm-up room …. Along with the negatives afterwards that I witnessed.”
The “Keep It Simple” approach to training that has worked so well for Mike Bridges and so many others was always utilized in the warm-up room also. Pete reminded me that “our mutual friend, Mike Bridges, and I discussed this several times. As you know Mike took only what was necessary to pump blood into the muscles and get the neurological system set for 3 heavy lifts” and of course, that is the proper way to warm-up on meet day despite any differences in overall training philosophy. Do enough to allow the body to perform heavy lifts, while allowing one’s mental focus and emotional composure to progress in a similar manner until the opening attempt in each lift. Would a set of 5 reps, a set of 3 reps with the same weight, another set of 3 reps, and three singles evenly spaced in weight progression leading up to an opener be recommended? It is a time-honored method that has in fact worked exceptionally well for most of our best lifters over the course of the past fifty years or more.