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Coaching Vs. Competition Phases In Powerlifting Programming

Today we are going to discuss two phases of my Powerlifting/Strongman programming that I use for most of my clients.

These phases are:

  • The Coaching Phase

  • The Competition Phase


I see a lot of lifters go to pieces on competition day due to overthinking, a lack of ritual and training being too inconsistent in the build-up to competition.

I think a lot of people/coaches aren't aware that these phases are needed resulting in clients overthinking the various aspects of their lifting like:

  • Should they wear Olympic lifting shoes or flats!?

  • High or low bar squats!?

  • Sumo or conventional deadlifts!?

  • Wide or narrow grip bench!?

  • Belt on or off for bench press!?

To name but a few of the questions floating around in a lifter's head.

There comes a time near a competition when decisions have to be made, clarity is reached and if you want to make changes, you wait until after the next competition to bring those changes in.

Not having a repeatable lifting ritual for each of the powerlifts (or whatever events are included in a particular strength sport) which someone can subconsciously run through on competition day is another common problem seen in lifters who just want to be a better lifter but are going about it slightly the wrong way.

This is because they are constantly researching, trying new things and not allowing many things to become subconscious because the person is always trying something novel, which interferes with everything that has already been learned.

You can't get good at something if you are always trying new things right up to comp day so I started introducing a COMPETITION PHASE into my athletes' programs to get rid of these issues.

This keeps people out of that flow place that most people have experienced where thinking isn't really happening. Performance just happens and normally in this state, performance is at its highest.

By having these two phases of programming we teach an athlete to GET OUT OF THEIR OWN WAY.

I'd like to thank Eric Cressey for this article as although the piece he wrote called competition vs coaching. It wasn't anything to do with what we are talking about today, the title got me thinking about our discussion and ironed out the concept in my head so I can share it with you guys.

Let's discuss the two phases so you can see how my thought process works.

These aren't specific ways to program your clients but ways to manage a client's mental performance as competition day gets closer. I've found this paradigm has worked well for many lifters from beginner to top-level athlete.

The Coaching Phase- Making Someone A Better Lifter

Could Also Be Called- Learning Phase, Experimental Phase, Doing New Shit Phase, "Chris has a wacky idea phase"

The coaching phase is a time period where an athlete is working on their technique often at the expense of weight on the bar, is experimenting with novel exercises, new rep schemes, new cues, new concepts, less specific programming, more free choice exercises and it essentially involves a lot more experimentation on my part.

Over time, with each successive coaching phase, both I and the lifter will learn a little bit more about what a lifter responds best to, so in theory each coaching phase results in slightly less experimentation and gradually becomes to resemble a permanent competition phase.

The complete lifter wouldn't need a coaching phase. This person is a robot who doesn't exist. In every athletes plan, I believe there should be play, experimenting with new things and "finding the love" of training.

Coaching Phase Rules:

  • An athlete can do their own research and can try to apply it to their own training (although discussion with me is encouraged)

  • An Athlete can look at social media as much as they want provided it doesn't make them insecure about themselves or their lifting

  • We'll try new setups, rituals, warm-ups and anything else that we feel needs changing until we find a particular way to set up, execute and perform

  • New exercises, sets, reps, tempos, cues, and training techniques will be used in this phase

  • Training in the coaching phase is often more fun than the competition phase depending on the athlete

  • An athlete has more choice here. For example, they might get to pick a couple of arm exercises at the end of 1-2 sessions

  • Varying equipment (beltless, sleeveless, wraps phases) are commonly used

The coaching phase begins when a new client starts with me when a client has just tested their maxes or has just done a competition (unless they have another one coming up within THE COMPETITION phase,) when they change sport (say Powerlifting to Strongman) or when they are beginning a new program or block of training and they are far enough away from competition for it to be appropriate.

You may also have a coaching phase in the middle of a competition phase if the lifter needs a break or "wash-out" week where we can work on movements separate to the competition lifts without worrying too much about interfering with lifting rituals or subconscious performance of the lifts.

As you build up your experience as a coach, you will gradually get better at when to apply a coaching phase, when to apply a competition phase and when not to worry about this at all.

The less experienced the client, the longer they are in the coaching phase. Many will still be in the coaching phase until the week before the competition or max testing or heaviest phase of lifting.

In fact, from now, let's just assume a client is coming up to a competition so I'm not waffling too much about less relevant topics.

This is simply because beginners have the most to learn. Often when a client's first competition comes around they haven't finished building the foundations that will make them a competent powerlifter, but they have enough skill and strength to compete safely and have a positive experience before entering into the coaching phase immediately after the competition.

I think every lifter at this stage should have a coach to look after them at competitions but that's a topic for another day.

A lifter who comes onboard that is naturally very strong but has terrible technique or has an injury to rehab or some kind of trauma to work through maybe in a coaching phase for far longer as unlearning and relearning new habits, movements and confidence can take a great deal of time and result in the competition phase they enter to be much shorter until the lifter is "where I want them to be" which inconveniently is always slightly different depending on the person because people have this annoying tendency of being a unique individual with no one quite like them on the planet. How annoying!


  • Fun

  • A mental break from competition pressure

  • Increased novelty

  • Less injury risk from high training loads

  • Increased DOMs

  • Increased cardio/fitness usually

  • More free choice exercises

  • Occasionally you stumble upon something which makes a big difference to someone's lifting

  • Helps fight competition blues if the athlete is post-competition


  • Increased injury risk because of novel movements

  • Increased DOMs

  • Sometimes the experimental stuff doesn't work very well

  • Feeling unfit as hell if you've just come out of a peaking phase involving just singles, doubles and triples

The Competition Phase-

Could Also Be Called: Focus Phase, Specific Phase, Serious Chris Phase, The Less To Think About Phase, Practice Phase, Ritual Phase, Platform Ready, Peaking Phase

This is the phase where we practice what we learned in the coaching phase and eliminate the background noise and zone in on those lessons, cues, and habits.

The competition phase is a time period where an athlete is consolidating their technique, isn't experimenting with new exercises (or at least new variations of the big 3 if it's a powerlifter) and is using tried and tested rep schemes.

The lifter now transitions to working on minimal to no new cues as they are already locked in and subconscious. Or if they aren't subconscious yet, just need a word or phrase to "make it happen."

The lifter now uses tried and tested concepts and competition-specific programming. The lifter has less to no free choice exercises and it involves (hopefully) no research on their part.

Ideally, the lifter will have less exposure to powerlifting related social media.

This is entirely geared towards creating/practicing rituals around an athlete's lifting until those rituals don't need to be thought about and just happen.

Again, the client is out of their own way and can just focus on being fired up to perform.


  • No research into the main lifts is encouraged

  • Training largely resembles competition practice under competition rules

  • No changes to lifting technique or pre-lift rituals unless it's needed

  • Limiting social media exposure to athletes in the same sport is encouraged

  • We'll practice current setups, rituals, warm-ups until they can be performed automatically

  • Programming will only contain familiar exercises or exercises deemed as less risky to the particular athlete unless they are new to my programming

  • Familiar sets and rep ranges are used with simple to follow instructions

  • Training is often a lot more serious in the competition phase, although a relaxed, fun session can be occasionally required to ease the pressure slightly

  • The athlete has less choice here. Exercises are often picked for a very specific reason (not "oh, this might be fun and also cause some gains" as in the coaching phase)

  • Competition specific equipment is used so if someone competes in wraps, they will do at least one session per week in wraps

A note regarding particularly anxious or second-guesser lifters, for those who feel overwhelmed when looking into lifting research or who feel anxious in the gym often have a longer competition phase with me so they can just focus on lifting without having to remember 94 things at once.

New exercises, sets, reps, tempos, cues, and training techniques won't be used in this phase as the person is too close to competition for us to be less specific and to be able to experiment with new methods. Tried and tested is the way forward here.

If the athlete can only train in a busy gym at peak times then the coaching phase a lot with a less pronounced coaching phase as a busy, loud gym isn't suited towards lots of technique changes, so I'll try to keep them lifting as subconsciously as possible by being in a slightly more relaxed competition phase.

The competition phase may also be extended if the person has a weight cut, is going through a particularly stressful time in their life or during periods of suboptimal sleep because these are the stages where new cues and methods and techniques don't really stick anyway.

When does it begin?

It depends on many factors.

The competition phase usually begins at a different time for everyone. For my experienced high-movement competency lifters, they can stay in the competition phase for most of the year, whereas a newbie lifter might only enter the comp phase the week before the competition.

It's usually at about the 8-week mark that I will encourage most of my lifters to stop researching the big lifts at this point. I don't want them to stop researching and looking into their sport and having a passion for fitness but close to the competition isn't the time to research the lifts themselves.

Research into similar topics is all good, but it shouldn't be stuff that will interfere with the lifters ritual unless the lifter doesn't care how they perform and just wants to have fun, which, while we are being honest, I often forget is a thing.


  • Competition performance improves

  • A lifter doesn't need to spend time researching the lifts

  • More weight on the bar

  • Less injury risk because of the novelty factor

  • Usually higher motivation levels

  • More control, less variation

  • Less decision making for the lifter


  • Training is higher pressure

  • Increased injury risk due to the amount of weight on the bar

  • The process is thrown off if an injury happens

  • Less novelty and free choice

  • More can go wrong

  • Lifters get worse at making decisions due to the pressure competition

Example Timelines For Various Athletes

Here we see an example of a very competent lifter who needs minimal actual coaching. we have a good idea of what works and what doesn't and the lifter can crack on. Even the more fun stuff will be tried and tested as we have probably been working together fora few years at this point

Here we see an example of another very competent lifter who needs novelty mixed in and likes to go "off-plan" and do new things. With lifters like this, I'll often put in a novelty week or something similar every 12 weeks or so.

Here we see an example of a beginner phase split. The lifter is building there competency and hasn't had chance for the lifts to become subconscious yet. This is ok because they'll be hitting PBs anyway due to newbie gains. The competition phase would probably only kick in during the last week or so before competing and even then, would not be as strict as with the experienced athlete

A Note On Injury

If an injury happens mid-competition phase, you'll often have to have a coaching phase for at least one movement but maybe all movements as you have to teach the athlete to train around the issue while they rehab it. This takes priority over any competition as there is always another competition the athlete could do unless it was the Olympics or something of that level.

If it's a little niggle, sometimes you can just throw in a coaching session, or work on something else then you can get right back into the competition phase. Knowing when to do this will come as you build your experience as a coach.


To help your clients to stop overthinking and being in their own way on the competition platform you should focus on the lifter having as little as possible to think about on competition day and in the gym in the build-up to the competition.

Each lifter will have a different length of competition phase, a different length of coaching phase which may change competition to competition.

Simply knowing that these phases are needed will help you to recognize when either you or your lifters need to stop researching and to start practicing subconscious performance with minimal input that could get in the way of this subconscious routine.

Remember that no matter what training phase someone is in, fun and enjoying the process should always be part of it.

If you are ever in need of assistance, ask a coach or another powerlifter/strongman or fellow athlete in your sport for help because we are all in this together.

Thank you for reading.

By Chris K

The Heavy Metal Strength Coach

If you'd like to see more from me, you can follow me on Instagram by searching for The_Heavy_Metal_Strength_Coach or simply by following this blog.

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