Posted 26 August 2011 by

Q&A With Strength Coach

Phil Learney

What advice would you give to someone trying to break through a strength plateau?

Strength plateaus are often pretty simple to overcome provided you can work out what’s wrong. Observing a lift and looking at the mechanics of it can often tell you a lot about what’s failing within the lift, the initial acceleration, lockout, poor glute function etc. etc. Don’t be afraid to set up a video camera so you can see what’s happening from all angles. Good strength coaches rely on observation as one of their best tools. Problem being that when YOU are the person lifting AND the person analyzing its tricky to do that.

Probably the 2 most common mistakes I see with planning or session execution is the athlete and sometimes even the coach is unaware what the actual goal for that lift or session is. Is it a technical, acceleration/speed or maximum load session? Remember that strength training is practically always revolving around the force equation.


It’s important to train both parts of the equation.

Secondly is a lack of planning in load selection, if you jump a planned load then chances are it becomes like the hare and tortoise. You may become stronger quicker but you will also tail off quicker. If you decide to do 200x5x5 DO what you planned, not more weight, not more reps and not more sets. To many ego driven strength athletes out there who are riddled with injuries.

In short, be clear of your goals, analyze technique and correct and make sure to plan and adhere to load selection.

What exercises would you say are key to
achieving overall strength?

Depending on the definition of ‘strength’ depends really what the answer is but if I was to pick 2 types rather than specific exercises it would always be any ground or hang based pull or squat variation. The use of the hips, glutes and posterior chain in any strength or power based movement is almost always the most critical factor. Modern living and society lends itself to this particular mechanic being pretty dysfunctional in most people. Dependent upon the individual a simple movement like a hip bridge can make someone make incredible gains in strength.

How did you get into strength training?

I guess I got into it by accident. I was a pretty overweight kid and took up rugby at a very early age. Despite my size I was always stronger than most of the other kids, not as fast but I was strong. It all stemmed from there. I started lifting when I was about 14 and never stopped. When I quit rugby I had a brief foray into bodybuilding but wasn’t taken by it but strongman and powerlifting got me hooked.

What types of food or diet would you recommend
for strength gains?

Too many strength athletes insist on either eating absolutely anything going or at the other end eat like bodybuilders. It has to be clear that PERFORMANCE athletes are different.

To gain strength you must look at performance and recovery based foods. I would always set a generous protein level 2-2.2g per kg of bodyweight.

On top of this a fairly standard 20-30% fats and the remainder of fuel coming from carbohydrates. Because of the mixed energy demands of lets say a powerlifter compared to a footballer compared to a strongman this ratio would obviously change accordingly.
The main emphasis is on quality of food and frequency of eating. When demands are high NO one can turnover vast quantities of food in one sitting. Most strength athletes should be looking at 6-10 meals per day.

What do you consider to be your strongest lifts?

Any type of ground pull or mobile carry. I’m pretty lean and mobile for a powerlifter or even a strongman so the quick, explosive events suit me. Tire flipping I’m great at, atlas stones, deadlifts, farmer’s walks or anything similar.

What rep range do you feel is most effective in
regards to strength gains?

We could be talking absolute or maximal strength, speed strength or strength endurance. There isn’t and will never be a ‘most effective’ rep range as everyone responds differently. If you improve any lift in any rep range it will, for the best part carry over into other rep ranges. This is how to some degree rep max calculators are a pretty good tool.

How long do you usually spend in the gym?

My sessions are pretty long due to the nature of rest periods required for this style of lifting. Often a session will last 2-2.5hrs. I train most days in some fashion, perhaps just some prehab work or pool work but something.

What do you think about when attempting a heavy lift?

People always say ‘did you hear me shouting?’ I think you tend to zone out really, as I never remember hearing anything. All I see is the lift in my head and what is going to happen.

Free weights vs machines what do you feel are the pros and cons of both and which do you prefer?

Free weights will always be better for most forms of strength training. Occasionally you’ll see a lever used in a feat of strength but for the most part its barbells, dumbbells or other implements. Overall strength encompasses stabilizers so becoming stabilized in any fashion goes against what you’re attempting to do. There is however a place for sarcoplasmic (size) hypertrophy within a strength athletes arsenal so for that purpose machines are always useful. They are also useful for assistance work when the larger muscle groups are fatigued.

Machines will make an athlete big and dysfunctional, free weights will make an athlete strong, functional and diet allowing big as well.

I still find it amusing that people who insist on staying away from free weights because they don’t want to ‘get big’ continue to use fixed resistance machines when they are pretty much all designed for bodybuilding.

We see a lot of powerlifters on the heavy side… is it feasible to stay lean while gaining strength?

In short, yes. Its laziness for the most part. Good nutritional preparation will always benefit ANY athlete but as powerlifting is based around stationary lifts many feel that this isn’t the case. Bodyfat has no function right!...but...just to play devils advocate on my own comment a large stomach will prevent forward flexion at the bottom of the squat therefore assisting in stabilizing the lift so it ‘may’ have some benefit. I’ll stay with my first answer though.

What supplements do you use if any?

My supplement regime for the most part is simple. I will use a vitamin/mineral pack, greens and fish oils every day. I will typically use a pre workout that has a lot of neutropics in it, during my session I will consume anywhere between 20-30 BCAA capsules and post workout I use Whey, Waxy Barley Starch, Leucine, Creatine and an array of antioxidants

If lifestyle or work gets in the way I will use a supplement to replace a meal but this is a last resort.

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