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From Scratch to World Records
by Gary F. Zeolla
Way back in 1981 I was National Collegiate Powerlifting Champion at 114s, and in 1982 I was runner-up at National Collegiates at 123s. But for health reasons shortly thereafter I had to stop lifting weights. And over the next 20 years I dealt with one health problem after another.
Specifically, first I was crippled with low back pain. Then I sustained numerous injuries in a near-fatal bicycle accident. Then I was crippled with fibromyalgia pain and fatigue. And finally, I was paralyzed with stiff person syndrome (a very rare auto-immune disorder).
To help me recover from the more recent of these problems, I began lifting weights again in July 2002. Then nine months later I entered a powerlifting contest for the first time in 21 years. And at it, I broke six International Powerlifting Association world records in the masters (40-44) and open divisions at 114s. Then four months later, I entered the IPA World Championships and broke my own six records and one additional one.
When I started lifting again, I started “from scratch.” The program I set up for myself was a basic beginner’s routine; the type of routine that anyone who has never lifted weights or hasn’t lifted in a long time could use to get started in powerlifting.
The changes I made in my routine as I progressed are the types of changes that most beginners would need to make. And the way I went about preparing for my contests could be used by anyone. So in this two-part article I will present an overview of my first 13 months of training and competition.
As my health began to improve in the spring of 2002, I started walking and doing some flexibility exercises. I then started lifting weights again on July 15th. My goal initially was just to try to get back into shape and to regain the strength and flexibility I had lost due to my health problems. Also I wanted to regain some of the weight I had lost.
In college, when I was competing at 123s, my training weight was about 128 pounds. But after I stopped lifting weights, over the next few years it dropped down to 112 pounds. In the late 1990s it rose back up to 117 pounds as a result of working out with Nautilus equipment.
But then, due to the more recent of my health problems, it dropped to a low of 105.8 pounds in April of 2003. Due to the walking and simply being able to eat more as I began feeling better, my weight had increased to 108 pounds by the time I started to lift again. But I wanted to get back up to at least 117.
When I started lifting, I lifted three times per week, doing the same total body workout each day. Following is the routine I used:
3. Calf Raises
5. DB Bench
6. DB Press
7. DB Rows
8. DB Curls
10. Reverse Crunches
Given my health situation at the time, I wasn’t sure if I would even be able to lift weights again. So for my first workout I used the lightest weights possible, including just the bar on the powerlifts. So I really started “from scratch.” But that workout went okay, so in subsequent workouts I increased the weight 10-20 pounds per workout on squats and deadlifts and 5-10 pounds for benches.
For the first couple of weeks the weights were still relatively light, but I wanted to be sure I used correct form. I figured since I was starting over, I might as well be sure I did things right. I did two sets of ten reps for all exercises (not counting warm-up sets).
By the end of July I was able to put the “big weights” (45s) on the bar for squats and deadlifts and 25s on the bar for benches. It was at this point that the weights were heavy enough that I had to “work” on the lifts. So I slowed my weight increases to 5-10 pounds each workout on squats and deadlifts and to five pounds for benches. I didn’t want to increase the weights too quickly and sustain an injury.
First Change in Routine
At this point, trying to do all three powerlifts three times a week was proving to be too much. So I split squats and deadlifts onto separate days and began alternating benches with a bench assistance workout.
However, I still did a total body workout three times a week, but I alternated two different workouts. So the routine I began using in August went as follows:
Day One: Squat, Bench, Upper Back, Abs.
Day Two: Deadlift, Bench Assistance, Biceps, Forearms, Abs.
2. Calf Raises
5. DB Rows
6. Lat. Pulldowns
2. Stiff Leg Deadlift
3. Close Grip Bench
4. DB Bench
5. DB Curls
6. Reverse Curls
7. Reverse Crunches
Now that I was working harder, I cut down the number of exercises to seven per day so as to avoid overtraining. However, since I was alternating two routines, I was doing each powerlift every 4-5 days and a total of 14 different exercises. This enabled me to add in some new exercises.
I continued to do two work sets of ten reps on all exercises. And my lifting was going surprisingly well. Slow but steady increases were getting me back to handling some half-decent weights. And my bodyweight increased to over 109 pounds by the end of the summer.
However, at the end of August I had a severe flare-up of my health problems and was not able to work out for two weeks. I also dropped back down to 108 pounds. After this flare-up, I wasn’t sure if I would go back to working out or not as I was feeling rather discouraged. So to give myself a reason to go back to the gym, I thought about competing again.
But given my health situation, I wasn’t sure if my body could handle the rigors of doing max singles. So I figured it would be best to try doing so in the gym first before planning on entering a competition. So when I started back at the gym in mid-September I started a training cycle.
First Training Cycle
I decided that the best way to prepare to do max singles would be to use a cycle method of gradually decreasing the reps over a period of a few months. So I planned out a five-phase cycle using the following progression of reps for the powerlifts:
Phase One: 8-10 reps
Phase Two: 6-8 reps
Phase Three: 4-6 reps
Phase Four: 2-4 reps
Phase Five: 1-2 reps
For major assistance exercises (e.g., stiff leg deadlifts and close grip benches), I used the same progression, except I didn’t drop below 4-6 reps. So I did 4-6 reps for the last three phases.
I planned on doing 5-8 workouts for each powerlift for each of the first four phases and 2-3 for the last phase. This way, the cycle would run for about four months.
This is longer than training cycles usually run. But I figured it would be best to be very gradual in decreasing the reps and increasing the weights. This would give my body time to adjust to the heavier weights and give my tendons and ligaments time to strengthen along with my muscles. I didn’t want to end up with a joint injury.
Along these lines, when I began lifting again I lifted “raw”- no wraps, no belt, and of course, no suit or bench shirt. And I continued to lift raw for the first three phases. I didn’t want to wear a belt or knee wraps so as to fully strengthen my mid-section and knees.
However, for the last two phases, I used a belt and wraps for the powerlifts since with lower reps there is more of a risk of injury. But since I wasn’t entering a contest just yet, I didn’t bother with a suit or bench shirt. And I didn’t wear gear at all for assistance work since I didn’t drop below four reps.
Reps and Weight Increases
I used a range for my reps (like 6-8) rather than a specific number because of the way I performed my sets. I would work almost to failure, but I stop before missing a rep. This practice forced me to work harder on my work sets than if I planned on doing a specific number of reps. With this style of lifting, two work sets seemed to work best.
If I got the top number of reps for both sets I would increase the weight for my next workout by five pounds. If the first set felt especially easy, then I might increase by five pounds for the second set. But ten pounds is the most I would jump from one workout to another, with a couple of exceptions.
First, when moving from one phase to another I would add an extra 5-10 pounds so as to be working within the lower rep range at the next workout. Second, when I added in supportive gear I would increase the weights sufficiently so as to accommodate the weight increases the gear gives.
That said, on deadlifts, for almost every workout throughout this cycle I was able to get the top number of reps for both sets. So I added 5-10 pounds each workout.
On benches, I initially added five pounds each workout. But eventually my progress slowed down to five pounds every other workout and then five pounds every third workout. But still, it was a slow but steady increase.
Squats, however, gave me problems. As I got into handling heavier weights I began missing reps at the bottom. This probably occurred as squats require more flexibility than the other two lifts. But due to my health situation, I still wasn’t very flexible. In fact, there were many times when I would have a hard time getting below parallel simply due to not being flexible enough to squat down that low. This situation was particularly frustrating as squats were my best lift in college.
In college, I would go to the gym no matter how run-down I felt. I thought this showed how “dedicated” I was. But what would happen is I would drag through a few workouts, end up injured, and be forced to take some time off. But now I realized that it made much more sense to take a day off when feeling run-down before suffering an injury. And I took one day of in October and one in November for this reason.
However, come December, I took a day off in the middle of the month, but by the end of the month I was already feeling overtrained again. I realized the problem was with my routine. At this point doing a total body workout three times a week was just too much.
So I took a couple of days off over the holidays and then started with a four day per week, split routine with my first workout of 2003. I will go into more details on such a routine a little later.
By the end of January, my bodyweight had increased to about 116 pounds, and I was ready to do my max single attempts in the gym. I decided to play it like a contest and take three attempts for each lift. This gave me a chance to practice picking attempts.
I based my attempts on what I did for my last double in the last phase of my cycle. So my openers were 5-10% less than that double; second attempts about what I had doubled, and third attempts about 2-5% more than the double.
My practice contest went well. The only attempt I missed was my last bench attempt. One major problem though, most of the time throughout my training I did not have anyone to watch me on my squats. So I wasn’t sure if I was going low enough. And with the problem I was having with getting buried, I was trying to cut it as close I could.
But during my squat attempts, another powerlifter did come into the gym. And he said I was a little high on my attempts. But still, I learned what I wanted from this practice contest.
First and foremost, despite some continuing health problems, I found out that my body could hold up under the rigors of doing max singles. I was really sore and wiped-out afterwards, but I made it without any injuries or major problems.
Second, using doubles to gauge my attempts worked very well. My openers were light enough to ensure being able to get them without being so light as to be "wasted lifts." My second attempts were about right; heavy, but not full max lifts. And except for benches, my third attempts were full max lifts, just what you want.
Third, I took careful note of where the most difficult part of each lift was. I then used this information to help me pick out the assistance exercises I would use for my next training routine.
And finally, the routine and cycle I followed worked great. My lifts were back to where I figured I could be competitive again. So I began looking for a contest to enter.
This article is continued at From Scratch to World Records - Part Two.
The above article was posted on this site August 24, 2003.
Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: My Powerlifting Background
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