Powerlifting-style training has spread throughout the hardcore in the general fitness realm. Assistance exercises such as box squats, glute-ham raises, and reverse hyperextensions get used often. You see more explosive lifting and very-low rep sets. Many trainees apply advice on form suited only for those that use support gear. Some adopt ultra-wide grips and stances that up the poundage yet harm the joints and develop the muscles unevenly.
Compared with the way that many train though, powerlifting seems like an improvement. The three competitive lifts: the bench press, the squat, and the dead-lift, rank among the best exercises to build size and strength. Improving strength is the exact process that increases muscle size in the long run, so any program that allows you to get stronger will work well. Compared with bodybuilding routines that focus on how a contraction feels without any regard for the weight, along with other poor methods such as instinctive training, training like a powerlifter would improve the results for many.
The basis for a lot of common powerlifting practices are questionable though, which includes accommodating resistance. This concept grew popular first through machines that used cams. These cams changed the leverage to make a weight feel heavier or lighter in different positions throughout the range of motion. Most machines still apply this effect today.
For powerlifting, which emphasizes free weights, accommodating resistance has emerged through chains and bands that usually attach to barbells. More links of the chain rest on the ground as you move toward the bottom of the exercise, removing some of the load. Bands create more tension as they continue to stretch, achieving the same effect.
The big assumption here is that changing the strength curve, or how heavy the weight feels throughout the range of motion, from what naturally occurs with free weights is the right step. It seems it is not. Accommodating resistance brings problems due to these reasons.
Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.
– Steve Jobs
- It fails to improve the strength curve.
When you feel strong at the lockout of the bench press, this only deceives you. You have optimal leverage but the muscles actually are weaker. You do not want the resistance to match with your leverage, you instead want the weight to match muscle strength, which peaks at the midpoint of a good exercise. The length-tension relationship proves this.
The length-tension relationship tells us that muscles form the most tension at the midpoint of any exercise. The components within your muscles that bind to create tension overlap best here. Returning to the lockout of the bench press, the muscles shorten and start to overcrowd. This creates less tension, the main stimulus for more muscle size and strength.
Overloading the lockout then, which occurs with bands and chains, has your muscles work harder in a weak position. You only feel stronger due to better leverage. This also casts doubt upon partial rep training, another typical powerlifting technique.
With good free weight exercises, the optimal point occurs when leverage is worst. This would happen when your elbows are furthest away from your body on the bench press, which occurs at about the midpoint of the fullest possible range of motion. This is precisely where the muscles work hardest. This already occurs with free weights, as long as you avoid too much range of motion. Some range of motion is needed though, helping through the pre-stretch and giving you some time to exert power.
The idea of individual strength curves, that someone may deviate from the length-tension relationship, is doubtful. The midpoint is where the muscles operate strongest for everyone.
Some argue this might occur due to certain muscles acting more strongly than others. This assumes their contribution differs throughout the range of motion. With uniform lifts that have you move in a straight line, in which each joint moves equally, makes this unlikely. This type of movement should occur on all three powerlifts.
- It may interfere with the skills involved in lifting normal weights.
Some proponents argue that accommodating resistance allows you to learn acceleration. They say that working with bands and chains forces you to push with all your might throughout the whole range of motion. This would seem to establish a good habit. As a weight grows heavier and heavier, many have a tendency to slow down. This will cause you to fail on your reps more often, achieving less in both training and competition.
Is this true though? Consider that it could change your mechanics when going back to normal weights. Negative transfer occurs when you use a similar motion to that used in your sport, which can cause inappropriate movement patterns to carry over.
You also may not slow down enough at the top, which could harm your joints or cause you to lose control.
You could just coach yourself to accelerate with a regular weight anyway. When using a weight at or near your 1 rep max, you are trying to move as fast as possible despite the weight moving slowly. The process is the same with or without bands and chains.
It seems then that as a powerlifter you should just practice with heavy singles. I would not recommend this for most trainees though, as very heavy weights threaten your safety. You can achieve the same progress by training to positive failure with a reasonably heavy weight. Nonetheless, as a powerlifter, you would need to so as your sports-specific training, accepting the risk.
- It can be dangerous.
As bands wear out and develop little tears in them over time, they can snap. Combined with a heavy weight, this could be catastrophic.
Bands can make it feel awkward when training to failure. Even though many powerlifters try to avoid this, it can still occur as you strive to improve.
- It adds complexity.
You want lifting to feel as simple as possible. With less to dwell upon, you can focus on effort and stay safe. Bands and chains will have you account for more and preparing longer, wasting time toward something that likely does not even help.
It may feel hard to quantify the weight you use as well, since bands can wear out as they continue to get stretched. You need to make sure you use the same bench and barbell for both chains and bands to keep other factors constant.
Avoid Accommodating Resistance
Attaching bands and especially chains to a barbell can feel raw and exciting. It may make you feel like a champion, using innovative methods that those much stronger than you have preached.
We all find it hard not to admire the success of the best in any field. Nonetheless, the elite can lead you astray.
The top powerlifters have a self-selection process, in that those that get injured drop out. Like many great athletes, they have the ideal genes for their sport. Almost all take performance-enhancing drugs that provide a tremendous advantage.
Any program that has you lifting heavier weights will get you stronger and more muscular. Powerlifting training in general certainly can work. Those with fewer endowments and that remain natural though will have to get more things right. Logic seems to show more than several flaws in powerlifting advice.
Some take the attitude that if something works, it just works. I have some respect for this view, but this can also justify any bad practice. Some though choose to endlessly research the latest science, ignoring that studies are rife with the problems involving humans in any field. They then have little to show for all of their learning since they never take practice seriously.
Some defend change if just for the sake of variety. This may seem to work at first since change is mentally stimulating. Perhaps they gain the placebo effect, working harder due to their belief. Variety though encourages using bad exercises. It only creates the illusion of progress since you have to learn and relearn the new or returning movements, which leads to quick but superficial improvements.
All of this explanation leads to a simple solution. Just use simple, unmodified free weights. Use enough range of motion to reach at least the midpoint of the full range of motion for the exercise. Avoid accommodating resistance.