When you are looking to improve your form when lifting, as well as lift more weight efficiently, one of the most important considerations is the thresholds of exercise. The internet is filled with corrective exercise demonstrations and it can be tough to wade through the chaos and know what will fix your specific issue. This is where understanding what threshold your issues fits into is beneficial.
In powerlifting terms, there are 2 types of thresholds: absolute and functional. When something is trained below the “threshold”, it fails to produce a sufficient stimulus and as such, you don’t create adaptation/progress. We will look at how to find the maximum capacity of both these systems, by using the functional threshold to do so.
An absolute threshold is the absolute maximum that you can do. An example of this would be a 1 rep max, with whatever form changes you might make in order to get it up. This might not look like your “ideal/good technique”, but the weight went up, and that’s all this threshold reflects. The sport of powerlifting heavily emphasizes this threshold as it’s the one that wins medals.
Functional thresholds reflect how much you can push without degradation in technique. Because of the nature of this limit, it will always sit lower than the absolute threshold; though we should always aim to close the gap between the functional and absolute thresholds as this tends to lead to better efficiency with lifting as well as a theoretically reduced risk of injury.
Within the functional threshold category, there are 3 subsets that are relevant to powerlifting:
1. Endurance/Fatigue Threshold
We see lifters hit a wall with higher volume phases of training where reps per set and overall fatigue would be higher. Typically, this shows as a big discrepancy between projected 1RM between lower rep sets and higher rep sets, where the higher rep sets look like the lifter is much weaker. Often, this is as a result of poor cardiovascular fitness. Some low-moderate cardio work a couple times per week can be of tremendous value here because it lets the lifter accomplish more work within a shorter period of time.
A second type of fatigue threshold is where the lifter is able to complete the reps per set with no issue, but as the workout goes on, their technique degrades. With a lifter in this situation, controlling the rest:work ratios can be an excellent tool to build capacity.
For example, let’s say our lifter can generally do 3 of their 5 sets of 6 @8 before their technique starts to break down or their RPE shoots up. You would start off by finding a weight you can do for their 3×6, then doing sets of 2 every 30 seconds for 9 sets, adding 1-2 sets per workout as long as the technique holds sound. Over the course of the cycle, you could build up to 15 sets (30 total reps, just like the 5×6).
Theoretically, the lifter’s performance might look something like this as they improve over the course of a cycle
2. Specific Strength Threshold
This refers to a specific muscular weakness which is holding back the technique of the lifter – as load increases, the lifter is unable to resist the forces of the load in a “good” position and will default to a position of strength, but with poor technique.
Often, a lifter who struggles with specific strength threshold tends to do corrective work that looks like what physios do, where they will prescribe an exercise to get a specific muscle stronger. While I don’t disagree with targeted strengthening work, I don’t know how much a band clamshell with the same Thera band your grandma uses is going to help you get your glutes stronger in a squat. Instead, using specific variations of a lift to target certain muscles can work better as it is both more specific to what you’re trying to improve as well as challenging enough to create a training effect that will carry over to the powerlifts.
For example, let’s say our lifter is working on keeping better upper back tightness on bench because they’re always collapsing from a lack of upper back strength. Your training could consist of more long-pause bench. Then a separate component of the training could be that our lifter works similar positions to what they trying to improve, but with a more direct muscular focus on the weak link, such as inverted rows with a big emphasis on the hold at the top which mimics your upper back position in the bench press very closely.
3. Speed Threshold
This is a less common issue in powerlifting, as it isn’t a very fast moving sport. There are two scenarios where this might be an issue. First, if the lifter is unable to complete the movement at the speed where they are strongest without technical breakdown, but able to do so while moving slower. Second, if they are unable to be explosive enough out of the bottom of the movement (especially on squat and bench press) to push through the sticking point effectively.Velocity based training can be a great training tool here where the lifter would work with tempo variations on exercises.
Going back to our previous example of the lifter whose upper back gives out on bench, let’s say that if they descend quickly (ex. 1 second), they are unable to keep the shoulders in a good position, but if they descend slowly (ex. 5 seconds), they can keep the control. The only catch with this scenario is that our lifter is wasting energy on an overly slow descent which is leaving a lot of poundage on the table in their bench press.
Over the course of the training cycle, the lifter could work with a weight they know will present them with the issue, and start with a 6 second eccentric for their technique work, then each session, drop a second off of the eccentric as long as the technique holds. Having this graded system helps to let the lifter gradually acclimate to having a faster technique which could help them press more weight in the long run.
When it comes to not being explosive enough out of the bottom of the lift, ensuring that you are training with weights that allow you to build a higher rate of force development early on in your cycle can be a useful tool. The easiest way to build this into a training cycle could be to have your lighter training sessions be more focused on less reps per set and moving the weight as efficiently as possible on the concentric. Instead of doing 4 sets of 6 at 200 on a squat, you could do 8 sets of 3 with a focus on explosiveness/RFD.
By dialing in to what is holding you back from operating within a high functional threshold, we improve technical proficiency. And, of course, by improving your lifting proficiency your absolute threshold will also go up. Therefore, it is vital to powerlifters to train more than just the ‘main lifts.’ Know your weak point, and evaluate where it sits within the three subsets of the functional threshold to know how to strengthen it. This way, you can work smarter, not harder to get superior results in your training.
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