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Powerlifting with PH3 –  The Summer of Strength and Swole or The Road to a 600# Deadlift

This is my story of training through Layne Norton’s PH3 in preparation for a powerlifting meet.  There are not many accounts on the internet of powerlifting on PH3.  And very few people know the level of tenacity it takes to complete a program like this.  I explain all the considerations I made while running PH3.  I give you an inside look at the aches and pains and the mental strain this program caused.  At the end, I take you through my meet results, as well as, visual and body composition changes.  I hope you enjoy my story.

Feel free to skip to the Results section.

Background Story:

This was supposed to be the Summer of Chill.  I was going to rock climb, spend time with a special girl I had been dating, and put lifting on the back burner, for once in my life.  But at my last meet I was so disappointed with my bench press and squat and failure to hit a 600-pound deadlift, my reason for being, that I immediately started training for a new one, a reactionary decision that had gotten me injured in the past.  Even as I plotted my new program, my knees had mild intermittent pain, and my left hamstring felt strained.

See, powerlifting is a brutal sport where athletes push their bodies to the limit.  If your movement profile is off at all, your body breaks down. It’s a sport that rewards perseverance, patience, and hard work.  And it’s a sport that most agree requires an off season.  Screw that…

The program:  Layne Norton’s PH3.  A radically new approach to training for me.  High volume. Power hypertrophy. And focus on the Big 3: squat, bench, and deadlift.  I never thought I would survive it.
Two days after my meet, I was back in the gym.  The program was radically different from Mike Robertson’s Online Training Program that I had been following for 15 months.  Instead of performing squat, bench, and deadlift one time per week.  I would be performing squats 3x/week, bench or bench assistance 4x/week, and deadlift 2x/week in a daily undulating periodization scheme.  This just means the program systematically varied the number of reps, sets, and load as a percentage of your 1 Rep Max (RM) you lifted throughout the week, giving your body more diverse stimulus and a break from heavy weights.  While I wasn’t going as heavy all the time (intensity), the program made up for it with brutally high volume.  Basically, this program would have me doing about 4x the volume I was used to on the powerlifts.

I’ve been prone to overuse injuries in my elbows and knees, so PH3 just sounded like a bad idea to me.  But I was going to give it a try.  “What the hell,” I thought. “If I get injured, I just stop. And I need a change up.”

Important Programming Considerations:

This is how I decided to run the program:

1.  I would perform all my squats during the first two phases of my program with a high bar technique where the bar sits high on my upper traps. Usually, my back squats were exclusively with a low bar position where the bar is situated surprise, surprise… lower on my back. I made this change for three reasons:

  • Low bar squats always beat up on the inside of my elbows. I have chronic tendonitis from poor training decisions during my CrossFit days. The high bar position takes less flexibility and puts less stress on my elbows, allowing me to lift with less pain throughout the program.
  • Quads are my weak link on squats. At the bottom of my 1 RM low bar squat, I have always fallen forward because of inadequate quad strength. High bar squats target your quads more because you train in a more upright position.
  • High bar squats take some of the stress off your low back. Since I was already deadlifting 2x/week, I knew I would be getting plenty of low back work.

 

2.  Due to the Law of Specificity, you should train exactly how you compete, I would gradually switch to low bar squats during my last phase of training. During Week 10, I performed my heaviest squat day with low bar squats.  In Week 11, I performed my 2 heaviest squat days with low bar squats. And in my final two weeks, all 3 squat days were performed with low bar technique.

3.  I strategically chose the weights I put in as my “1 RM” for this percentage based program. Each week, the weights you lift fluctuate as a percentage of the 1 RM you base the program on.  Layne Norton recommends using 90%-100% of your true 1RM when starting the program. The more advanced you are, and presumably the better your form is, the closer to 100% you are supposed to set your starting weights.  Due to PH3’s design, if I started too low, the weights automatically correct and get heavier. The weights adjust weekly on your Strength Day according to your performance on the last set of your main lift in the previous week’s As Many Reps as Possible (AMRAP) set.

  • For back squats, I had to test my 1RM for high bar. Remember, I rarely trained high bar squats.  To do this, I ran two weeks of PH3 Intro workouts with reduced weights to practice high bar form and on the last day, I tested my 1 RM. I hit #385 and missed 405#.  The program would be based off of 100% of my high bar 1RM.  This is light for me considering 385# is only 85.2% of my low bar 1RM (452#).  I was okay with this because I didn’t think my knees would like squatting 3x/week.
  • For bench press, something in my gut told me to go heavy. It was my weakest lift, and I had the best chance at drastically improving it.  And keep in mind, I expected to get injured and end the program early.  I was jaded… So screw it. I went with 270#, aka 98.1% of my true 1 Rep Max.
  • Lastly, deadlifts, my strongest lift.  The weights this program started me out at were very intimidating no matter what weight I picked, 90-100%.  But the deadlift was my baby.  I chose to base the program off of 550#, which was 93.4% off of my true 1 RM at the time (589#).  It was conservative, yet scary at the same time.  I cannot stress how brutal this program is.

 

3)  I followed Layne Norton’s recommendation to make this program all about hypertrophy and keep assistance bodybuilding specific.  I chose my exercises but generally kept his basic layout for assistance work.  This was going to be the Summer of Strength and Swole.  I would sign up for a USA Powerlifting (USAPL) meet where the weight class cut off was 93kg (204.6#), rather than the more common 198# class of other federations.  I could use the extra mass and had only weighed in at 194# when I cut weight too hard for my last meet.

Bodybuilder, I am not, I used vastly different training techniques from what I was used too. I included Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) work and performed about 3x more isolation work than I was used to.  I trained calves, bis, and tris, like a good little bodybuilder.  I figured my joints couldn’t handle too many more intense compound exercises since the program included a shockingly high volume on the main lifts.

4)  I skipped out on abs and core work completely.  The program had me training 5 days per week with 1.5-2 hour workouts most of the time.  I needed to cut a corner somewhere.  The question remained, would my core stay strong enough purely through lifting heavy ass weights and bracing into my belt?

Running the Program:

I performed 2 weeks of Intro work for 2 reasons (I like lists, I hope you do too):

  1. Layne Norton recommends that if you aren’t used to high volume programs, you should go through the first phase (4 weeks in length), while skipping the As Many Reps as Possible (AMRAP) sets to failure. Then you repeat Phase 1.  While I didn’t follow his advice verbatim, I knew I needed to transition cautiously into this program.Adapting to the volume of PH3 was going to be brutal, my knees were not 100% after peaking from my last meet, and I needed to familiarize myself with high bar squatting and establish a 1RM.  I was basically on the Anti-High Volume Program while training for my last meet.  Therefore, I performed 2 weeks of the program with reduced weights and skipped the AMRAP sets. It was a solid strategy that made my transition into PH3 successful.
  2. I had a vacation to India scheduled on September 15th, so I wanted to peak the last weekend I was in the states with a powerlifting meet. The USAPL Connecticut Last Show for Nationals meet on September 11th fit the bill perfectly.  I would officially start Phase 1 of PH3 on June 13th, exactly 13 weeks out from my meet.

 

Phase 1:

I started Phase 1 with an increase in volume and weight from my two intro weeks, and I felt surprisingly good.  My hamstring was still slightly strained, but it didn’t seem to be getting any worse.  My knees would occasionally hurt, but usually, it was just for a moment and they would feel better right when it was time to squat again. This was to be expected.  My body was adapting to a high volume program.  At the same time, high bar back squatting was starting to feel really good.

Phase 2:

The weights were getting heavier.  But early Phase 2 was when I felt my best.  My hamstring strain had mysteriously cleared up.  Occasionally, I would feel an old adductor strain rear its ugly head while squatting.  When this happened, I would just tweak my foot position or change my lifting shoes.  This approach, plus a few key warm-up moves, specifically single Leg Glute Bridges and Straight leg glute bridges, seemed to keep my body tuned up and feeling good.

Could it be? I was surviving the program and hitting bench and deadlift PRs left and right?  Confidence was high.

Then disaster struck! I must have begun to overreach a little bit.  My sleep had gotten worse that week.   I’m not sure if it was the program taking its toll or if it was that my girl had left the country.  I was averaging about 6 hours of sleep… the perfect storm for injury was brewing.

Week 7, Day 45, Wednesday, July 27th.  I’m bench pressing my 5th set of 6 at 220# and I feel a crack, a pop, a click?  Regardless of what it was, my neck Instantly tightens up and I can’t turn my head very well. This isn’t good.  The pain is 6-7 out of 10 at night.  I decide I can still train, but it is very annoying and further contributing to my sleep issues.  It’s hard to get in and out of my car, and I can’t hold the phone to my ear hands-free.

After a week, I start taking 600mg of Ibuprofen 3x a day to control the pain. After another week, I realize I need to see a physical therapist and book my first appointment.  I also see a chiropractor but decide the physical therapy was much more effective.  I found Jon Herting, owner of The Training Room of Garnet Valley off of ClinicalAthlete.com.  Jon is great at what he does.  After the first week of performing the exercises he assigned, the discomfort was 70% better.

I’ve been speculating what the cause of this injury was.  I think it was just the result of me pushing my neck way to hard into the bench in an attempt to generate extra tension while bench pressing.  The theory goes that the more full-body tension you create, the more weight you can lift.  It’s true. But I personally will no longer perform bench press or coach others to aggressively drive their cervical spine into the bench. Your neck does not need that extra stress.

Phase 3:

I was now in the most intense Phase of PH3.  The Overreaching Phase.  Things got interesting.

I was absolutely shocked my elbows could handle benching 3x/week without starting to get achy.  In the past, I always had to cut back bench volume drastically to prevent overtraining whenever the weights got heavy.  If you look at my bench press progression from all my meets from October 2013 to my last meet in May 2016 (253.5 – 270 – 275 – 253.5 – 275.6), you’ll notice terrible progress.  During most of those meets or the weeks leading up to those meets, I had a terrible tendonitis ache in my elbow that would negatively affect performance.  I always hit rep PRs preparing for the meet, but by the time the meet rolled around, I was too beat up to perform.  The Final workout of Week 12 was the first time I felt a hint of that familiar pain, just in time for my taper week. Not bad.

Weeks 11 and 12 of the program were absolutely crushing to my soul.  Working out became a chore.  Maybe once a week I would have a glimmer of excitement to train. And I absolutely dreaded the high volume day where you perform all 3 of the big lifts. Every set was a grind. I questioned why I did this crazy sport.

But this was by design.  I was in an Overreaching Phase.  I was exceeding my body’s ability to recover. These workouts were supposed to feel absolutely terrible.  I was taking 7 minutes of rest between sets to finish my final strength workout on squats for 6×3 @ 385.  This was a volume PR in an overreached state.  The best I had ever done with that sort of weight was 1×2 @ 415 and 2×3 @ 385, 1×3 @370.  And I still got my reps in, barely (I missed two reps of Bench Press throughout the whole program when I was pressed for time).  Sets of 2 on Deadlift at 525 almost killed me.

Still, I really started to question the merits of the program.  Layne never once describes this program as being for powerlifting.  He says “The goal of this program is to gain a significant amount of muscle mass, but also get significantly stronger.” He does not say specifically, “this program will peak you for a powerlifting meet.”  I thought I had made a big mistake going hard all the way through Week 12.  Usually, my deload would have started 2 weeks out from my meet and my volume would have been drastically cut.  Most advanced powerlifters taper training this way.  I feared this program was just for bodybuilders or worse yet, drug users, and it wouldn’t peak me properly for the meet. Against my better judgment, I kept assistance work volume high and dropped it by about a 1/3 in week 12, and dropped it almost completely week 13.

Over the weekend at the end of Week 12, I did something stupid, again.  For the record, stupid actions = experience.  This is how I learn the most important lessons about training.  I signed up for a memorial golf tournament that I do every year honoring my friends passing and supporting a local charity.  I almost never play golf, and the weekend before an important meet is the absolutely worst time to try new sports.  I know what you’re thinking… It’s golf.  Well, I call bullshit.  Golf puts quite a bit of stress on the elbows.  I was feeling twinges of elbow pain on my drives.   The countless aggressive asymmetrical trunk rotations made my left lower back tight the day after the tournament.  No big deal, I thought. I made up a stretch that was like a cobra stretch while laying on one side.  I stood up and suddenly I had SI joint pain on my lefts side.  Standing up fully was uncomfortable, to say the least.  Great! I really thought I might have to pull out of the meet.  Nervously, I performed my first workout of the week two days later. 4 days later, the pain had resolved.  Phew! Close call.

The weekend of the meet, my confidence was lukewarm.

My knees started to hurt a little, which I am used to before a meet. It’s always a troubling occurrence.  It would come and go, fortunately, come meet day, it disappeared completely.

I had not reached very high percentages of my 1RMs in training, and during the previous 2 weeks I felt awful.  For squat, my highest working weight was 85% of my 1RM (385 for 6×3).  Bench press I worked up to 92.7% of my 1RM (255 for 5 sets of 3 and 1×4).  Ok. I was actually feeling confident for bench.  Deadlift I had struggled with 89% (525 for 6 sets of 2).  The weights still seemed relatively light on deadlift.  Again, it was a volume PR.  But this wasn’t how I thought you were supposed to train for a powerlifting meet.

In the past, I peaked with a heavy 2×2 at 3 weeks out for back squat, bench, and deadlift.  Two weeks out, I would perform my openers for 2×1 on squat and bench, while pulling light for speed on deadlifts.  The last week, I would only perform 60% of my 1RM for back Squat and bench. That was it.

PH3 had me lifting “heavy” even in the Taper Week before my meet.  I performed 5×3 at 74% of my back squat, 5×3 at 85% of my bench, and 3×3 at 68% of my deadlift.  But I decided to trust in the program.

Fortunately, I did not have to cut much weight going into the meet. Reducing my carbs to mostly vegetables the week of the meet was enough to reach the 93kg weight class with 0.4kg to spare.

Sleep is always an issue for me leading into a meet.  It’s tough being a creature of the night, and after every meet, I swear to change my late night ways.  But that never works.  Two nights before the meet, I tossed and turned with bizarre Ambien-induced dreams.  I found out the insomniac’s pills did not work well for me and I will never take it again.  The night before the meet, I was tired but sleep came easily when I finally shut my eyes 6 hours before my alarm was set.

Meet Day:

I showed up early for the meet for the first time ever.  I regretted not sleeping in for that extra hour, but I felt good.  There was nothing to do but wait and distract myself by socializing with the other lifters.

The comradery is unreal at a meet.  Every lifter has put in countless hours under the bar and they all share an understanding of what sort of commitment it takes to hit PRs and improve year after year. The energy was contagious.

Game face time.  No more doubts.  I resolved to give my best effort and see what I could accomplish.

Squats began. I hit my opener at 391.3# easily.  No surprise there.  Attempt 2 felt good as well. 429.9# in the books.  I thought I had a PR in me, but I was not prepared for the 12.5kg jump to 457.5#.  I was stapled at the bottom of the squat.  At least my form stayed tight.  Next meet, I needed to train at a higher percentage of my true 1RM going into the meet.

Numbers and video:

Attempt 1:  177.5 kg = 391.3

Attempt 2:  195 kg = 429.9

Attempt 3:  207.5 kg = 457.5 Failed

Bench press time.

This was the lift I was most confident on.  Still, I made a bad decision. I warmed up using wrist wraps, having not trained with them.  My wrists had been slightly wonky in past weeks and I felt the wrist wraps would be advantageous.  A few minutes before my first lift, I decided to abandon them.

I smoked my first lift at 259#.  Time to go for a tiny PR at 281.1#. I hit it but the lights were red.  I failed to listen for the “start” command and descended too early.  The smart thing would have been to repeat the lift and establish an official PR in the books.  I thought I had more in the tank.  I went for a 2.5kg weight increase to 286.6#.  This was one of the most difficult, grinding bench presses I had done in competition.  I was thrilled at the 10kg PR!

Numbers and video:

Attempt 1:  117.5 kg = 259

Attempt 2:  127.5 kg = 281.1 Failed

Attempt 3:  130 kg = 286.6 PR

On to deadlifts.  My baby.  I had wanted 600# for the last couple years.  A 600# deadlift had become my reason for being.

Warming up, it’s really hard for me to say how I felt. The weights on deadlift always feel heavy.  I let the bar slip away from me at 495.  This was disconcerting.  But I buried these thoughts, knowing I had put in the work.

My first attempt was 551.2#.  It flew up.  I knew this was the day to hit 600# or 600.8#, to be exact.  I was going for broke.

The announcer called my name and rallied the crowd to support me for this momentous lift. Summoning the fury of a thousand hell hounds, I approached the bar.  The energy was electric. I sucked in as much air as my belly could take. I bent down and hook gripped the bar.  I pulled my body into position and pushed as hard as I could.  It seemed an eternity, but finally, the bar broke off the floor and I just kept thinking “keep driving.”  I locked it out, received the command, and slammed the bar down.  3 white lights!  My quest for 600# was over!  My work was done.  And my pain face will live on thhrough the internet forever.

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Numbers and video:

Attempt 1:  250 kg = 551.2

Attempt 2:  272.5kg = 600.8 PR

Attempt 3:  N/A

My meet Total was 597.5 kg = 1317.3#, 17# better than I had ever done before. If I had hit my 3rd attempt on back squats, I would have qualified for Nationals.

The Results:

I consider my 13 weeks training on PH3 to have been wildly successful.  I hit PRs on 2 out of 3 of my lifts by 5 kg each and nearly hit a squat PR. My total was a 7.5kg PR, and I finally hit my 600# deadlift.  I performed this program specifically for Powerlifting and any lifter that improves as much as I did on a 13-week program has nothing to complain about.

But what about my muscle mass? Many lifters would perform PH3 solely for its hypertrophy benefits.
My mass gain was fantastic.

I took initial circumference measurements and fat caliper measurements both at the start of the program and 2.5 weeks from the end of the program when I started reducing my assistance work (11.5 weeks in).  Both measurements were in the evening before lifting for the day.

I started at a bodyweight of 200# and finished at a bodyweight of 205# before cutting a couple pounds for the meet.

Body Fat Calculator
Date: 6/6/2016 8/25/2016
Assessment Number: #2 #3
Name: Matt Smith
Age: 30 30
Bodyweight: 200 205
 
The Spots  (mm) (mm)
Abdominal 12 13
Triceps 8 9
Chest 6 8
Mid-axillary 6 8
Subscapular 8 8
Suprailiac 4 3
Thigh 8 7.66
Sum of Skinfold Test: 52 56.66
Body Fat Percentage: 8.1 8.8
Fat Mass: 16.2 18.0
Lean Mass: 183.8 187.0

 

The measurements show that as an advanced lifter I gained 3.2 pounds of muscle in 13 weeks and gained a tiny bit of fat.

Initial Body Composition Measurements
Date: 6/6/2016 8/25/2016
Assesment Number: #1 #2
Name:  Matt Smith
The Spots (cm) (cm)
Neck Girth 38 38.5
Shoulder Girth 124 127.5
Chest Girth 102 108
Upper Arm Girth 34.5 39
Waist Girth 86 88.5
Hip Girth 101 106.5
Thigh Girth 62 66
Calf Girth 39 40

 

I improved every measure of circumference.  I was especially impressed with my 4.5 cm gain in my arms, which was mostly because I had never fully embraced my inner bro and directly trained the guns adequately.

Here’s a less than ideal Before-After picture that looks more like something one sends to a booty call.  The location, the pose, and the setting would have ideally been consistent.  But this is what you get.

 

before-after-ph3

The photo on the left was from the day before my meet on May 21st, 2016.  The photo on the right was September 10th, 2016, the day before my meet after running PH3.  By the end of my program, people I had seen every day for a couple years were telling me “you’re f—ing huge!”

Concluding Thoughts:

Without a doubt, this program works for hypertrophy and Strength. The question is, can you survive it?

If you choose to follow this program, make sure you are used to high volume programming and do not be afraid to scale down your weights.

The high-frequency bench training was key to my success on bench press.  And my decision to train most of the program with high bar back squat was a necessary decision to spare my elbows.  It also might have been the reason my squat did not see improvement.  Had I not traveled for 28 days after my powerlifting meet, I would have run this program again with a higher starting weight for each lift, especially squats.  I am confident all of my lifts would have improved.