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Intensity is one of the foremost considerations for any powerlifting program because intensity determines your training effect. This is a continuum. The further you move away from low reps, the further you get away from powerlifting specificity. photo: Practical Programming 3rd Edition, Mark Rippetoe, Aasgaard Co. 2014.
Powerlifters Must Go Heavy A large component of any one rep max is going to be neural in nature. By lifting extremely heavy weights relative to your ability, in the 90%+ range, you are going to improve overall levels of muscular recruitment as well as your general muscular coordination. In order for a powerlifting program to meet the specificity threshold, you must spend time at, and above, 90% during the appropriate times in your training cycle. Powerlifting and Hypertrophy Of course, Powerlifters also have a significant need for hypertrophy. Think of a car. You can only go so far through improving the efficiency of your motor. If you want your car to go faster, at some point, you’re going to need to build a bigger motor.However, keep specificity in mind. For powerlifters, what type of additional muscle mass do you think will be of more benefit: quadriceps muscle built doing sets of twenty on the leg extension machine or quadriceps muscle built doing hard sets of ~80-85% (of their one rep max) on the squat? The answer should be obvious. In terms of one-rep max, powerlifters have no real need to spend any significant time below 70% on the competition lifts and, realistically, the vast majority of their training on the competition lifts should be in the 80% range. Once you start getting below these intensity ranges, the limiting factor on most sets starts to come down to metabolic fatigue factors such as ATP depletion, lactic acid tolerance, and other endurance components that aren’t necessarily relevant to increasing powerlifting performance. Intensity Determines Training Effect If you want that training effect to be specific to powerlifting, make no mistake about it, you’re going to have to lift heavy. Mike Tuchscherer pulling HEAVY at IPF World’s (750lbs+/320kg+). photo: jtsstrength.com
Volume The Role of Volume To borrow from Mike Tuchscherer, if intensity determines the training effect then volume determines the magnitude of the training effect. Consider a sun tan. If you spend one minute in the sun, that isn’t going to produce a very appreciable level of adaptation if it does anything at all. However, if you spend two hours in the sun that is likely going to result in you receiving a nice sun burn (“overtraining”). More importantly, there are a wide range of values in the middle. If you spend 15 minutes tanning, you’ll get one level of tan, but it likely won’t be as much of a tan as you’d get from 30 minutes of tanning so long as you don’t get burned. Again, the sun is the intensity that determines the training effect (you get a tan), but the amount of exposure time (the “volume”), determines the magnitude of the training effect (how “tan”you become).