We must remember these three principles of muscular adaptation: variability (stress must be alternated to achieve adaptation), progressive overload (stimulus must progress as adaptation occurs), and specificity (adaptations are specific to the training stimulus). Specificity tends to be key for powerlifters, which means if the goal is to improve the 1-rep max of a competition squat, it is important that heavy competition squatting is included in training. How then could something like light load BFR ever have a place in a powerlifter’s repertoire? Well, specificity is not quite that restrictive and, as previously mentioned, there must be variability and progressive overload built into a training program along with specificity.
Specificity can be broken down into specificity of movement and specificity of load/rep range. Let’s use our 1-rep max competition squat as an example in Table 1. As you can see, there are viable options to achieve adaptation other than strictly performing heavy squats. This is important because it is not optimal for a powerlifter to only train the same movements with the same reps at the same load. It is typically recommended that powerlifters periodize their training into phases, such as a hypertrophy phase, a strength phase, and a skill/technique phase.
|Specificity of Movement||Specificity of Load/Rep Range|
|Leg Press for Sets of 1-3||N||Y|
|Leg Press for Sets of 12-15||N||N|
|Comp BB Back Squat Sets of 1-3||Y||Y|
|Comp BB Back Squat Sets of 10-15||Y||N|
Hypertrophy phases are important even for a pure strength athlete not only to satisfy the principle of variability, but also to improve long-term strength. Components of strength include muscle size, neuromuscular factors like rate coding (efficient muscle fiber recruitment), resiliency and adaptations of muscle/tendon architecture, mood, arousal, and acquired skill. Since muscle size is one of several attributes that make up strength, it becomes more important once the other factors have been optimized. For example, if a seasoned lifter has efficient neuromuscular rate coding, has developed bone, tendon, and muscle adaptive resiliency, is able to tap into proper arousal and mood state, and has acquired the proper skill to perform the desired movement, hypertrophy can be quite impactful. Conversely, hypertrophy becomes less important in a novice lifter since he/she hasn’t yet optimized the other components of strength. It can be concluded that hypertrophy tends to be more important for long-term progress in strength training, especially in advanced athletes who may have “capped out” or are close to “capping out” most other components of strength. Another time when muscle size could be impactful is with movements of low skill-level, such as a preacher curl, because there is less of a demand for efficient rate coding, arousal, skill acquisition, etc.
So where can BFR fit into a powerlifter’s training? BFR could be a great addition to a hypertrophy phase because it allows for a drop in load without sacrificing training adaptations. This would allow the lifter to take a break from heavy loads and still reap the hypertrophy benefits of the phase. This type of phase can also be seen as a “load” deload, where intensity and metabolic stress are increased and load is decreased. Varying the training stimulus and giving the joints and soft tissues a break from heavy loading can also be a great way to modulate workload and reduce risk of overuse injuries.
****Remember, the decision to use BFR, or any treatment for that matter, should be based on the pillars of evidence-based practice.
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