Switching Focus from Bikini to Powerlifting

I’ve been working with Sohee Walsh for the past couple of months. I know that my readers would love to hear some of the behind the scenes details prior to Sohee’s competition, so I asked her to write me a guest blog outlining her progress thus far.

Switching Focus from Bikini to Powerlifting
By Sohee Walsh

Why did I decide to train for a powerlifting meet?

The short answer is: I wanted to try something different.

After having been aesthetics-oriented for the past seven years of my lifting career, I was kicking the can around. It was January 2015 and I had just wrapped up my bikini show a few weeks prior. I was still training consistently, but I was feeling a bit aimless in the gym.

I was pretty happy with how I was looking, you see. Sure, I would have loved to build some boulder shoulders, but I knew that progress would have been painstakingly slow. A full-blown ultra-high-calorie, super-high-training-volume regimen simply didn’t appeal to me.

I found myself on a phone call with Bret one afternoon discussing some potential business collaborations. As most conversations with him go, one topic led to the next, and soon we got to talking about my fitness goals.

“Sohee, you should try a powerlifting meet next,” he said. His reasoning was something along the lines of: I’d immersed myself in the aesthetic side of fitness my entire career, and it would be beneficial to experience the performance side of training. I wouldn’t get big and bulky (duh!), and it might be a lot of fun to make strength my primary focus for a while. * Bret’s note: I also told her that it would build her street cred and make her more versatile as a coach

That was enough to pique my curiosity.

Training Specifics

Bret started me off on a daily undulating periodization (DUP) protocol for the first six weeks of mg training. DUP is essentially a form of high-frequency training (HFT) and involves working a specific movement multiple times per week with varying set rep ranges each session. * Bret’s note: this program was designed based on Sohee’s unique prior training experiences, equipment and time availability, exercise and programming preferences, and goals.

Since I’m training for a powerlifting meet, our focus was on the squat, bench, and deadlift.

The first few weeks started out great.

Though I hadn’t back squatted in a number of years, my strength gains were steady. Week by week, I found myself progressing in either reps or weight.

Here are some videos from my very first week:

Back squat 105×3

Bench press 75×5

Conventional deadlift 150×1

Here’s what my first training program looked like:

Day 1

  1. Back squat 3×5
  2. Conventional deadlift 3×1
  3. Front squat grip barbell reverse lunge 2×8-10ea
  4. Chinups 3xMax

Day 2

  1. Bench press 3×5
  2. Barbell glute bridge 3×8-10
  3. Barbell push press 3×6-8
  4. Inverted rows 3xMax

Day 3

  1. Back squat 3×3
  2. Conventional deadlift 5×3 @ 60% 1RM
  3. Dumbbell Bulgarian split squat 2×8-10ea
  4. Pullups 3xMax

Day 4

  1. Back squat 3×1
  2. Bench press 3×3
  3. Barbell glute bridge 3×8-10
  4. Dumbbell bent over row 3×8-10

I would check in with Bret every few days, sending over videos of my lifts, and he’d offer pointers to tweak my form. Switch to low bar squats, arch more in your bench, get a solid pause at the bottom of each bench rep – all that jazz.

I was having a lot of fun. After months of being on a high volume, five-day split, it was a refreshing change to be lifting four days a week and no more. Moreover, chopping my training volume from 10+ different exercises per session to just four both saved me a good deal of time and left me with enough energy and motivation to hit each session with vigor.

By the end of week six, however, I noticed that my hips starting to ache when squatting. I shot Bret a text that day, and he advised me to be careful. Just a few days later, I was forced to rack the bar mid-warmup set because the pain had gotten so bad. I shot Bret a disheartened message and finished the rest of the session, working around the pain.

Simply put, my body’s anatomy was not built to handle high frequency squatting. While I personally enjoyed getting under the bar three days a week, my body begged to differ.

Bret and I agreed to give my body a full break from squatting for a solid two weeks; no meet was worth risking debilitating injury for. During that time, I kept up my deadlifts and benching and threw in a lot of hip thrust variations to stay active.

At the end of those two weeks, I had a decision to make: Do I want to call it quits and give up my powerlifting endeavors, or would I rather work around the injury, figure out a plan B, and keep moving forward?

After much deliberation, I decided that I wasn’t going to back down. I hopped on the phone with Bret and he whipped up a new, modified training program for me.

No more HFT. We were switching gears to high intensity training (HIT), at least for the squat.

This is the program that Bret has had me on for the past few weeks now. Note that each time I squat, I only work up to one working set to failure. That’s it. Then I rack the bar and move on.

Day 1

  1. Back squat 1xfailure
  2. Bulgarian split squat 2x10ea
  3. Nordic ham curl 3×3
  4. Glute burnouts 1x3min straight (non-stop band glute work)

Day 2 

  1. Conventional deadlift 1×5, 1×3, 1×1
  2. Barbell hip thrust 3×5
  3. Chinups 3xMax

Day 3

  1. Bench press 1×5, 1×3, 1×1
  2. Incline bench press 2×6
  3. Knee pushups with elbows tucked 3xMax
  4. Feet-elevated inverted row 3xMax

With this training regimen, I’m working on a 2-or-3-days-on, 1-day-off schedule. Since I like to take Wednesdays and Sundays off to run errands and rest, I’m now training every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. We also have 10-15 minutes of playtime at the end of each session, and I’ve been using that time to train for the SFG kettlebell certification course that’s coming up in May. * Bret’s note: the switch from DUP to HIT style squat programming has allowed Sohee to continue squatting and continue setting PRs while experiencing no pain in her hips

Here’s a summary of how my numbers have progressed:

Back squat

3RM

1/28/15 105×3, 105×3, 105×3

2/05/15 110×3, 115×3, 115×3

2/12/15 120×3, 125×3, 125×3

2/19/15 125×3, 130×3, 130×3

2/28/15 130×3, 135×3, 135×3

3/06/15 135×3, 135×3, 135×3

5RM

1/26/15 95×5, 95×5, 95×5

2/02/15 95×5, 105×5, 105×5

2/09/15 110×5, 110×5, 115×5

2/16/15 115×5, 115×5, 115×5

2/26/15 120×5 (workout cut short due to hip pain)

3/05/15 125×5, 125×5, 125×5

8RM

2/23/15 105×8, 110×8, 115×8

3/02/15 115×8, 115×8, 120×8

1RM

1/31/15 115×1, 125×1, 125×1

2/07/15 125×1, 130×1, 130×1

2/14/15 135×1, 135×1, 135×1

2/21/15 145×1, 145×1, 145×1

1xfailure 

3/23/15 120×5

3/30/15 126×5

4/04/15 125×7

4/09/15 130×6

Bench press

5RM

1/27/15 75×5

2/03/15 80×5

2/10/15 82.5×5

2/17/15 82.5×5

3/28/15 85×4

4/02/15 85×5

4/07/15 87.5×5

3RM

1/31/15 80×3, 80×3, 80×3

2/07/15 85×3, 85×3, 85×3

2/14/15 85×3, 87.5×3, 87.5×2

2/21/15 87.5×3, 87.5×3, 87.5×3

2/24/15 87.5×3, 87.5×3, 85×3

3/03/15 87.5×3, 90×3, 90×2

3/10/15 90×3, 90×3, 90×3

3/28/15 90×2

4/02/15 92.5×3

4/07/15 95×3

1RM 

2/28/15 90×1, 95×1, 100×1

3/06/15 95×1, 97.5×1, 97.5×1

3/12/15 95×1, 100×1, 100×1

3/18/15 95×1, 100×1, 100×1

3/28/15 95×1

4/02/15 100×1

4/07/15 102.5×1

Conventional deadlift

1RM 

1/26/15 155×1, 160×1, 160×1

2/02/15 160×1, 165×1, 165×1

2/09/15 155×1, 165×1, 165×1

2/16/15 163×1, 168×1, 170×1

2/23/15 170x, 180×1, 185×1 (with weight belt, slight rounding of back)

3/02/15 150×1, 150×1, 150×1 (cut weight back to work on pulling with no back rounding)

3/09/15 155×1, 155×1, 155×1

3/25/15 170×1

4/03/15 175×1

4/06/15 180×1

I should note as well that I’ve been struggling with my deadlift for a long time. I have what appears to be a giant knot in my right trap that is likely causing the sharp pains in my back whenever I try to pull heavy. This is something that we are constantly trying to work around. This is also why you won’t see very many videos of my deadlifting.

Here’s a recent video of me squatting 130×6 (you’ll notice I wobble a bit on rep 4; that’s because the bar almost rolled off my back and caught me off guard):

And benching 102.5×1, a lifetime PR:

We’re currently training to compete at the May 30 meet in Tucson, Arizona under the 100% Raw Powerlifting federation. (We were initially shooting for May 25 with USAPL, but registration was full and we were forced to come up with a plan B.) * Bret’s note: I can’t wait for this…I’m hoping that Sohee hits a 176 lb (80 kg) squat, a 105 lb (47.5 kg) bench, and a 204 lb (92.5 kg) deadlift, for a 485 lb (220 kg) total.

Nutrition and Physique Specifics 

Last summer and fall, I went through a 20-week contest prep and stepped on stage on November 8 weighing 106lbs at 5’2”. Here’s what I looked like:

11082014 Competition Shot

After that, I slowly reverse dieted my way back up to 1,800-2,000 calories per day over the next two months.

I’ve been maintaining my calorie intake since then. While I’m not weighing out every morsel of food at this time, my goal is simply to loosely track my intake and make sure that I’m eating enough to keep the strength gains coming.

In general, I try to hit a minimum of 130 grams of protein a day spread through four to five meals. I eat more carbs on days that I’m training and less on days that I’m not.

I don’t restrict foods at all, but the bulk of my diet comes from whole, minimally processed foods. I like to enjoy a treat in the evenings, usually in the form of Greek yogurt with some m&m’s sprinkled in.

It’s simple, really. I don’t overcomplicate my diet and I don’t adhere to strict rules – especially when aesthetics is no longer my main focus.

I’ve been maintaining a bodyweight of 107-108lbs since my show. Given that I’ll be competing in the 105lbs weight class come late May, my goal will simply be to keep my weight where it is so I’ll only have to do a mild, mild water cut to make weigh-ins.

Here’s a progress picture of me on Saturday, April 11 – five months after my bikini competition:

Sohee

As you can see, I don’t look too different from when I stepped on stage. Yes, I have a little more muscle (hoorah!) and yes, I look a little more filled out, but my quads are by no means overly developed and I haven’t suffered from decreasing my training volume.

(For those of you wondering, I’m able to stay so close to stage weight because I utilized completely sustainable, moderate methods during my contest prep. That allowed me to experience zero rebound whatsoever. I’d say it’s healthy to maintain within 5-15lbs of stage weight, depending on the individual. If you’re interested in reading more about my contest prep experience, click here.)

I don’t resort to extremes when it comes to my training or my nutrition. Been there, done that, and I’ve learned my lesson many times over. I’m here to prove to myself, to my clients, to all of you reading this that utilizing a moderate approach 24/7 absolutely works.

Closing Thoughts

The biggest change that I’ve noticed thus far in my powerlifting prep has been my mindset above all else.

I don’t look in the mirror and scrutinize every subtle change in my physique from day-to-day. I find myself looking forward to every single training session, and instead of wondering, “How can I look better?” I’m asking myself, “How do I get stronger in the gym?”

I love setting PRs. I love pushing my body to its limits and accomplishing feats that I’ve never come close to before. I love the confidence that comes with knowing that I can, indeed, lift heavy shit.

This hasn’t been a hiccup-free ride, and I certainly didn’t expect it to be.

And boy, am I learning a lot.

I’m not out to be the best powerlifter in the world, and I don’t care about that. I simply want to try out a new experience and learn a thing or two along the way. And who knows? Maybe I’ll come back again next year to compete again.

Follow along on my powerlifting journey as I continue to prep and share my progress with you for the next seven weeks. I post videos on my Instagram regularly and I hold nothing back. You can also connect with me on my Facebook page and check out my website.

Sohee

3 Comments

  • Olivia says:

    I love this. Also a bikini girl here, but used to be big into functional movements so seeing this gives me hope that I really can kind of switch back to focusing on strength without being ‘scared’ in some ways. Keep it up and good luck, Sohee.

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