Written by Gage Reid of Nova Strength
Photo by Recon
The old cliché for Powerlifting is that "anything over 5 reps is considered cardio" or "Powerlifters only need to do 1-3 reps, anything over that is useless". Not only are these old Powerlifting words of wisdom long extinct, but if you follow these "rules" then you are most definitely missing out on some serious gains, but most importantly as a Powerlifter, you're missing out on pounds on your total.
Higher repetition training (in the 8-12 rep range) is excellent for Hypertrophy--- Muscle hypertrophy involves an increase in size of skeletal muscle through a growth in size of its component cells. In other words, hypertrophy is the process of making your muscles bigger. I know what you're thinking, "High reps are for Bodybuilding, I'm a Powerlifter!" Unfortunately having that mindset will cause you to plateau and or have a slower rate of gains as a Powerlifter, and as an athlete in general. Hypertrophy training has many, many benefits that include, but are not limited to; increase in work capacity (increase Max Recoverable Volume), lower risk of injury (pre-hab/re-hab), more total work/more overall volume in a workout, and more time practicing the actual lift by performing more total sets/reps in a given training session.
Another rep scheme that is sometimes overlooked by more intermediate to advanced lifters is the 4-6 rep range (75%-85% of your 1-Rep Max, or 1RM) which is used during General Strength blocks of training. This rep range is excellent for Rate of Force Development (RFD)--- in other words, it's the "sweet spot" for building general strength, and 1-3 reps is excellent for displaying aforementioned strength (IE: peaking). It's very important that you separate those two training protocols and do not get them confused or intertwined; building strength and displaying strength are two completely different aspects of training, but both are equally as important in the grand scheme of getting bigger and stronger.
When you think of sets of 4-6 most people think of "5x5 programs", which are seen as protocols for the beginner lifters. I agree with that, in a sense. Following a linear program such as 5x5 is not practical or efficient for Powerlifting in the long term. But, just because the program itself is not efficient for Powerlifting, that doesn't mean you can't take a step back and use rep ranges of 4-6 to build some general strength. Once you find what works for you then you'll be able to periodize your training more efficiently and use "Phase Potentiation"--- which is the idea of performing one specific task each training block (either hypertrophy, general strength, peaking, etc), therefore then being able to take the gains made from that block and carry it on to the next to be better at your next task.
** NOTE: Look for a specific article on Phase Potentiation in the future as I believe it plays a HUGE role in Powerlifting and athletic strength development.***
One of my favorite quotes by Mark Bell, creator of the SlingShot and owner of SuperTraining Gym in Sacramento, California, is "a bigger muscle, is a stronger muscle". If you take the time to apply hypertrophy phases to your training then you will build a bigger muscle, which will give it more potential for overall strength. You'll always hear experienced lifters talking about how you must build a foundation before you can start to build true strength. I completely agree with that statement and I believe that all beginner lifters must take the time to focus on pure hypertrophy training before moving on towards General Strength blocks, then eventually on to Peaking Blocks. It's crucial that you build a base of muscle and efficient general movement patterns before you start moving to heavy triples, doubles, singles or testing your maxes.
In conclusion, higher volume training for Powerlifters is absolutely crucial. Training must be periodized appropriately throughout the year as to avoid fatigue, focus on certain aspects of training you may need more of or focus on weakness (such as hypertrophy), and to prepare for upcoming meets in the most effective way possible. Generally speaking, most females who are new to Powerlifting require a good amount of time in hypertrophy and general strength phases of training before even touching heavy triples, doubles or singles. This is because many girls are taught movements incorrectly because they are being instructed by total strangers in the gym who know nothing about Powerlifting and just want some one-on-one time or they were just simply never shown the proper way to lift. It can be very tough for a girl to decide she wants to start training for Powerlifting, so when she finally does, it's important that she finds a good coach or friend to help them along the way. 5 years ago female Powerlifters were somewhat rare, now they are coming out from everywhere and there's tons of knowledge. Find someone who's experienced, knows what they are talking about and go train hard!