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Powerlifting Training, Routines and Programming with Marilia Coutinho

Powerlifter Marilia Coutinho talks to Be The Fittest about powerlifting training, routines, workouts, exercises, programming and much more.

Powerlifting is a sport which suffers from equal part admiration, controversy and misunderstanding. Marilia Coutinho is one of the leading voices in the very competitive female power lifting world. Hailing originally from Brazil and living between there and the US, She is a University Professor and the owner of a consultancy company, “Merton MZM-Body Stuff” which focuses on research and training courses in Physical education and nutrition. But she is not just a scholar, public speaker or researcher; she is a role model for all sports and athletic professionals across the globe.

She is the true definition of strength through adversity. Her determination and self belief has helped her overcome tragedies such as rape, abuse, self harm and drug addiction. If anybody tells you that you are incapable of achieving something, we implore you to read her story and be inspired.


BeTheFittest: Hi Marilia, thank you so much for this interview, to start with could you please tell the BeTheFittest audience about yourself, how and why you got into training in the first place and the various tournaments that you have participated in?
Marilia Coutinho: Although sports have been an important part of my life, probably since very young (I don’t remember a time when it was absent for very long) I was in and out of what I would consider high performance. I was diagnosed as having a neurologic and/or psychiatric condition much later, but I was a “weird kid” as early as I can remember. The only relatively normal periods I had were when I was engaged in high performance athletics. The most important period, before my recent return to powerlifting, was when I was about 11 yrs old and started fencing. I became a pretty good fencer, won the Nationals in my age class and was one of the first in the overall ranking when I quit, at 15. That was when the Communist Party decided I should quit everything and devote my life to the Revolution. It was 1978 and there was a military dictatorship in Brazil. Members of my family belonged to the party, the adults were very incisive and I had no way of running from this at the time. For three to four years I was severely abused, physically and psychologically, raped and humiliated and when I could no longer even speak I returned home and resumed an almost normal life. Rape, a forced abortion and other items of violence made whatever neurologic/psychiatric condition I had much worse. I silently self-mutilated and abused drugs. Back to the University, where I studied and majored in Biology, took a M.Sc. in Chemical Ecology and then a doctorate in Sociology of Science, I behaved as a disciplined academic. Research and teaching first – all the rest comes after. I trained whatever I could: swimming in Summer, some fights (judo, tae-kwon-do, karate) and running. Training kept me almost sane. My postdoctoral years were more turbulent, my condition became more evident and I received more and more pharmacological treatment. With each new treatment, usually different drugs added to those already in use or, alternatively, higher doses of the same ones, the condition worsened. That went on to a point where the quality of my life was too compromised and I decided whatever life risk I faced was minor in comparison. I decided to quit the drugs and go back to the only approach that ever brought me some peace: sports. So I found a gym and started a journey of discovery about which sport or training approach would work best. I found out that intense strength training controlled my symptoms, it was not yet powerlifting, but almost. Unfortunately, I mistook that mild level of control, less mood instability, for actual control and cure. As soon as I deloaded too much, leaving my training aside for more than a week and losing track of it, the condition came back with full strength. I slashed my throat, partially severed the jugular, and survived this suicide attempt by accident: someone was passing by at this desert dirt road and helped me to a small hospital. That was when I decided that my life depended on the loaded bar – it was either that or letting myself be numbed into oblivion by drugs. I took things seriously and in a few very hard years, changed my career from a well published social scientist to a sports specialist, coach, writer and high performance athlete. I slashed my throat on July the 4th, 2005. I did my first powerlifting meet on August 2006.

BTF: Wow! That is unbelievable. How did your actual career as a power lifting athlete begin? Do you remember the first time you saw a female power lifter?
MC:Do you remember the first time you saw a female power lifter? Well, that was it: love at first sight. Actually, love at first lift: I was already doing deadlifts and bench presses on my own, and trying to find out what real squats were as early as late 2005. I knew, somehow, that was what I was meant for. But when I saw an Olympic bar for the first time, in June 2006, I was hooked. I remember looking at it, at the colored plates all around and thinking: “I will never leave this place. I am finally home”. By “this place”, I didn’t mean that specific gym. It is a universal place that takes form every time an Olympic bar, proper plates and a platform exist. Wherever there is this combination, I am home. It took a while for me to get to know any real good or committed female powerlifter’s. I was still in Brazil, although I have lived on and off the United States all my life. In Brazil, most female lifters were wives or girlfriends of male lifters, who brought them into the sport. They left as soon as the relationship was over. Two great lifters developed their talents after I parted ways with the organization I started with, which I believed was corrupt and bureaucratic. I became friends with female powerlifters much later, when I came to the USA to compete. I have many friends and I have learned a lot from them. The first time I saw a real female lifter was in 2011 and she was not competing, just helping out: April Mathis, one of the greatest all time lifters. The following year I met many others and, among them, another one of the best lifters I know, Jenn Rotsinger, who competed in Las Vegas with me in November 2012.

BTF: Powerlifting and Strength training is not generally popular training methods among the majority of women who train regularly in the gym. There is a perception that it will make them bulk up and look manly, what advice could you give to women about the benefits of training the way you do?
MC: I believe that this perception is just part of the problem. I believe we must add other factors there. One of them is “body alienation”, a condition that affects much more women than men. Girls’ motor repertoire acquisition is severely impaired by the way they are brought up, with far less motor stimulus than boys. Strength exertion is alien to them, as much of many other physical abilities their bodies inherently have. Babies are hardwired for strength, power, coordination and agility, but we are “de-educated” into silencing these abilities – women far more than men. When a woman finally makes it to the weight room, strength exertion is not only weird and new, but it is scary. To make things worse, they don’t feel welcome there. The social-spacial partitioning of the weight room area, studied by the field of ethnography, shows that there is a clear gender gradient between the free weights area and the “cardio” machines, with a grey zone of guided movement machines in the middle. Free weights are for guys – cardio for women. This distribution is obviously not natural: it was socially constructed according to the discomfort women feel with the exertion of their own strength, the symbolic association between strength and power with masculinity and also fear of the unknown. I have some advice to different people involved in this sad situation. First, to gym owners: try to train your instructors to gradually encourage women into the free weight area, first as chaperones, socially integrating them in the environment; second, to coaches: don’t give up on your girls, whatever their age. Believe everybody – literally everyone – is strong. Your role is an almost sacred one: to help them regain tenure over something that was lost, but has always been theirs, which is their strength. Third, to the women: don’t give up on yourselves. Even if today all you can handle is the bar or even less, believe me: there is a fountain of strength inside you. All you have to do is be patient, let your body regain its lost wisdom and add weight to your training, gradually. It is not only fun: it is highly empowering.

BTF: Females tend to focus on cardio exercise to help them lose weight or light weights to tone up specific parts of their body. How much does cardio feature in your weekly work out routines?
MC: Oh, yes, the eternal cardio controversy. Again, we have a problem with polysemy: the same word, borrowed from a technical context, acquires all sorts of different meanings when employed by other media. “Fitness” is one example: to be “fit” is to be apt to perform a certain task. It is miles away from meaning you have a six pack. “Cardio” refers to “cardiorespiratory conditioning”, meaning the ability of our cardiovascular and respiratory systems in providing oxygen to the rest of the body while we engage in physical activity. Since different types of physical activity represent different types of cardio-respiratory demand, the type of conditioning required is different. Let’s take a look at the two extreme types: long distance runners and powerlifters. They obviously don’t require the same type of cardio-respiratory fitness. But what about rugby players? Fighters? And what about the dentist, the student, the lawyer who go to the gym for a better quality of life? What research has been suggesting is that the traditional very low intensity and long duration workouts, such as walking, jogging (light) or leisurely swimming do not confer the practitioner any significant level of improved cardio-respiratory capacity. Again, who needs what? What is this practioner’s objective, age, trainability? That’s what we need to ask. A good level of cardio-respiratory conditioning is better achieved by short, intense, short interval workouts. For me, short sets of KB swings or squats, with very short intervals, is what works best. Does that mean that walking, jogging or light swimming don’t have a place in fitness anymore? Of course not: again, what research suggests is that these light activities have a better anti-inflammatory response than resting. But doing cardio to lose fat, if not combined with some strength training, is not that effective for a person with a mild overweight condition. Let’s always keep in mind that for seriously overweight or obese patients, any activity is beneficial: whatever they do. As for light weights for “toning”, again, we have a non-concept here. What is “toning”? If by toning they mean stronger, harder muscles and a higher ratio of lean mass to fat, than light weights are not nearly as effective as weights that provide the optimum hypertrophic response. The thing is not called “weight lifting” for any other reason than the fact that the object must be heavy. Cardio-respiratory workouts for me are usually those in which I use my sports specific movements, but fast and with very short intervals.

BTF: What are some of the biggest misconceptions in strength training today for men and women?
MC: There are too many to list. But one thing they all have in common is that they come from the generalization of something that is probably right in specific cases. The body responds to strength stimulus in a huge variety of ways. Let’s take a look at some of the wrong generalizations: True or False, Does hypertrophy happens at the 6-12 repetition range, while strength gains happen at lower volumes, like 1-5 repetitions? TRUE: Hypertrophy is a morphologic adaptation to strength gain, but only one of them. It can and will happen in any arrangement of repetitions, as long as other factors conducive to hypertrophy are also present. Strength, on the other hand, is a result of many factors besides muscle hypertrophy. It is possible, through specific training strategies, to double the magnitude of an individual’s maximum strength without much change in his/her muscle mass. Strength gains happen at all repetition ranges, although more pronounced gains in power and maximum strength happen at over 80% intensities (expressed as percentages of a one repetition maximum or 1RM). True or False, You should only train one muscle per day? FALSE: nobody trains muscles. We train MOVEMENT. A movement is the result of the action of complex muscle chains, which in turn happen because of certain neuro-endocrine responses, which are commanded by the Central Nervous System. It is technically impossible to isolate a muscle. Bodybuilders design workouts that target certain muscles more than others and I can assure you it is not easy: muscles cannot be isolated. So no, you don’t have to train one muscle per day. There should be a weekly split with more emphasis on certain movements in different days, since rest and recovery are extremely important to keep the individual healthy and to ensure performance. The fads are all bad. While a novice will make progress with any program, that doesn’t mean the program is good. It means the individual is so fresh of stimulus that any stimulus works. Therefore, the pre- formatted training programs will all tend to produce results for 5-10% of those who try it and fail for all the rest. The supplement and sports diet fads are equally stupid. Like “milk is necessary for anyone who wants to grow strong” (80% of the human population is intolerant to milk), “milk is a poison that nobody should drink” (while the other 20% who are not intolerant can get high benefits from milk), “carbs are necessary for strength gains for everybody” (for most people, yes; for some, who are good fat oxidizers, carbs are not that important and can be negative if in higher glycemic loads), “ketogenic diets are the best for performance and weight loss” (strictly ketogenic diets are good for epileptic kids, period).

BTF: Could you give us your typical weekly workout routine leading up to a powerlifting show and your routine in an off season?
Day 1 – “Push day” – bench press up to 5-6 sets of 5 reps, close grip bench press, cross-over, rotator cuff work and a rehab circuit routine (up to 4 exercises targeting a specific injury or recovery)
Day 2 – “Squat day” – squats up to 5-6 sets of 5 reps, lunges, good-mornings and a rehab circuit routine
Day 3 – Olympic lifting (first session) and “Pull day” (second session) – deadlifts. Conventional deadlifts for singles up to 85%; speed sumo deadlifts for 5 sets of 3 reps. Rows and a rehab circuit routine.
Day 4 – “Push day” – speed benches (wide and close grip), triceps extensions, overhead exercises and a rehab circuit routine
Day 5 – Olympic lifting (first session) and “Squat day” (second session) – speed/volume squats and assistance work for deadlifts, stiff legged deadlifts, rows, biceps curls, chin ups and a rehab circuit routine
Day 6 – (may or may not happen. If so, day 5 pulls happen here)

Day 1 – Bench press – strength day. According to periodization, from 80-97%. Very little assistance work
Day 2 – Squat day – strength day. According to periodization, from 80-97%. Very little assistance work
Day 3 – Other assistance work day – curls and other assistance work
Day 4 – Bench press – speed day
Day 5 – Deadlift – strength day + Squat speed day

BTF: Could you tell us a little about your diet and supplements leading up to a show and during your off season?
MC: I don’t tolerate carbohydrates that well: I am hyperinsulinemic and I have delayed carbohydrate digestion. So my diet is heavy on animal protein and vegetables. I do use a lot of protein powder supplements, especially because of my peculiar metabolism. Close to a meet I eat even less carbs than usual, maybe not more than 30g/day. People have a hard time understanding how I gain strength this way. There is some evidence about variation concerning mitochondrial function between individuals. PART 3: Marilia shares some advice on how beginners can get starter in the powerlifting training, how she increases her strength on specific power movements and the benefits of stretching.

BTF: How would you recommend beginners who want to start powerlifting and what specific exercises should they concentrate on at first to become the best powerlifter in time?
MC: Oh, that’s very easy: squat, bench press and deadlift. Powerlifting is a hard sport and one that takes very long to become good at. It takes longer to automatize the movements, to learn the technique, supercompensation (inhibition and supercompensation curves) is much slower, so you really need to be patient with yourself. Also keep taking part on meets: it is essential to get your feet on a competitive platform. That is what makes a powerlifter a powerlifter. As the years go by, you will get stronger. Trying to do a myriad of different exercises in the hopes they will carry over to the three big lifts is silly: the first task is to get good at those, and that should take most of your time.

BTF: Do you train with bands and if so when do you use them in your programme and what are the benefits of training with them?
MC: Yes, I do: I use bands for speed/power work both for the bench press and the squat. I hardly use them for the deadlift because of my home gym arrangement: it is difficult to use them.

BTF: How much recovery do you allow yourself to have in your programme, for example in one week how many rest days would you have?
MC: Usually two days, in which I focus on cardio, stretching and rehab exercises.

BTF: How many times a week/month would you try and hit maximum lifts and try and break your records and why this frequency?
MC: Never except at the platform. Ed Coan, the greatest powerlifter of all time, once said: “everyone is born with a certain number of maxes. Why waste them at the gym?” I follow his philosophy to the letter.

BTF: When trying to increase strength in your squat and deadlift from personal experience what other exercises can you recommend in applying to help get these lifts stronger?
MC: Squats will get stronger from squatting: that’s it. There are many strategies to use: dead squats (squats that start from the side bars of a power cage) at different heights, very wide sumo dead or box squats, front squats, supra-maximal lockouts and static holds … whatever is necessary to address a specific deficiency. Deadlifts benefit from hamstring-glute raises, stiffs (stiff legged deadlifts), good-mornings and even kettlebell swings. And, of course, supra-maximal lockouts and static holds.

BTF: How important are assistance exercises to you, how often do you apply it and do you make them more into bodybuilding exercises rather than strength?
MC: Assistance exercises are used the whole time except in the very short period right before the meet, during tapering. They are absolutely important. Every powerlifter has one or another weak point to be improved, and this is done through clever use of assistance work. Assistance work is used in different intensities so, no: I don’t try to make them into bodybuilding exercises.

BTF: Core strength is so important throughout powerlifting how often do you work it and do you do any specific exercises for it?
MC: I work my core strength absolutely every workout. Powerlifting is all about core work: it is the art of decelerating and accelerating huge weights while in complete bipedal posture. Therefore, it is extreme use of all core structure resources, by definition. Nothing will strengthen a core as much as squatting or deadlifting. Do I do specific abs exercises? I do, but not to “strengthen my abs”. I need to provide variety of stimulus.

BTF: How often do you have a cheat meal and what is your favourite cheat meal?
MC: I’d say usually once a month. But the best cheat meal of all time is the day after weigh in. It is scary for normal people, especially if you are watching someone who did a very strict weight cut. I like fat steaks with mashed potato, pizza and, of course, chocolate mousse and ice cream. Lots of ice cream.

BTF: How often do you have a de load week, and what can you recommend for people who are powerlifting training to involve de load weeks into their programming.
MC: I don’t do that. I periodize my training and there are periods when certain lifts are less intense, but I don’t believe in deloading. There is no basis to generalize its adoption in competitive programming.

BTF: How do you prepare yourself before going in to a meet and what do you do to calm your nerves so you perform your best?
MC: Nothing in particular. I am an extremely focused lifter, whether in competition or training. I can be talking some nonsense and then suddenly stop and not hear a thing while I walk up to the bar. We all have the right to choose a platform song. I have never been aware of mine being played. I funnel my sensory input to a point that I hear nothing except the head judge’s command. We don’t need to be either calm or psyched up: we need to be focused. Extreme focus is an altered state of consciousness that is being studied by neurologists, also known as “the zone”. The feeling of total dissolution into the “all” and of timelessness is hard to describe in words, but that is the state of consciousness I am in when I achieve an outstanding goal.

BTF: What is your favourite and least favourite lifts and why?
MC: I love all the three and each one of them has a different personality. The squat is the highest expression of personal power and control. The bench press is an introspective lift, a dive into our own source of power and inner strength. The deadlift is an outburst of freedom.

BTF: How much stretching is in your daily/weekly programme? What types of stretches do you find most beneficial after a particularly heavy session?
MC: Every day! I have more fibrosis in my muscles after four decades of competitive athletic life than anyone can imagine. If I don’t stretch, I grow all tight and sore. I usually do them at night, hours after I lift.

Photo credit: – Helena Coutinho

Author: Tyrone Brennand – Personal trainer Chelsea & Kriston Smtih /
Instagram: @marilia_coutinho