Derek Thistlewaite—Strength Strategies

by: Josh Bryant

Often, strength coaches like using big words, but, unfortunately, they also lift small barbells! These mullets unwaveringly defend their favorite mode of periodization because it worked best on hungover, malnourished, jabroni college kids in a study.

This circle jerk stimulates academics in the ivory tower, but won’t cut the mustard in building cock-strong, son-of-a-bucks in the real world.

The best elements of old-school linear periodization blended with effective newer models and cutting-edge training methods produce synergy and build the strongest men on Earth.

Today, we are going to a look at strength programming strategies that aided Derek Thistlewaite, whom I recently had the pleasure of coaching to a 2,292.8 total (RAW with wraps).

Derek, with no weight cut, came in at a #Chippendalesready 240.3 pounds. What makes this total even more special is Derek was sick the week of the meet, and despite PRing in each lift and total, Derek went 6/9, dollars to donuts says with no hiccups 2400 was there.

Remember, the stronger a person is the harder it is to improve, so I want to share five strategies that propelled Derek to executing the second highest total of all-time in the 242 class. 

Remember the words of Bruce Lee when reading this and applying it to your training, “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”

Undulating Weeks

Training frequency is influenced by genetics, training history, strength levels, the complexity of a movement and more.  Technically simple “dumb lifts”, like a conventional deadlift, do not have to be trained as frequently as neurologically complex “smart lifts” like the snatch.

Whether you get your best results with a high, low, or medium training frequency is dictated in large part by your parents. That is why I use a HUGE variety of training frequencies with my clients.

Lifters with predominantly fast-twitch muscle fibers do better on a lower training frequency compared to lifters with more slow-twitch muscle fibers that thrive with a higher training frequency.

Derek is a neurological efficient fast-twitch machine and because of Derek’s efficient tissue, we must carefully balance stimulus with recovery.

To complicate things a bit, Derek pulls sumo, the lift which requires the most technical proficiency in powerlifting.

In the past Derek, would go heavy on both squats and deadlifts weekly. This initially worked well but led to a premature peak and deficient recovery.  One solution would be to squat heavy one week and deadlift heavy the next in an alternating fashion, this method works very well for many fast-twitch dominant (fast gainer lifters). Recovery is then adequate and because of the infrequent high intensity stimulation, psychologically it does very well for laser-focused, mentally strong lifters. Remember, psychology trumps physiology.

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Derek competes in wraps, so, in meet prep, one week Derek would do a very heavy squat in wraps and get some medium work in conventional deadlifts, which helped Derek’s back strength, saved his hips and simply gave us another option, if needed. 

The next week Derek would do a semi-heavy raw squat and a very heavy sumo deadlift.  The raw squat crept overtime and eventually PRs but it never exceeded an RPE of 8, to keep the CNS fresh. 

On reloads, Derek would go light and refine his sumo technique. This undulating style worked like a charm!

 Application Point

The more complex “smart” a lift is, the more often you should train it.  Fast gainers need less volume and frequency than slow gainers; as a slow gainer, your genetic equalizer is your ability to train more frequently, with more volume and more intensity. Take heed to The Law of Individual Differences: We all have different abilities, bodies and weaknesses, and we all respond differently (to a degree) to any given system of training. These differences should be taken into consideration when designing your training program.

Squat Volume

25 years ago, a 350-pound lifter being stuffed into a triple ply squat suit and squatting 900 pounds on a monolift four inches high was world-class.  Derek is squatting that weighing 240 pounds without a weight cut or squat suit all while walking the weight out and hitting unquestionable depth, and then follows it up with a 903 deadlift.

The meet doesn’t start until the bar hits the floor!  

To pull record deadlifts, to have positive momentum going into the end of the meet and keeping your competitors uneasy, you must possess adequate powerlifting-specific conditioning.

The equation gets tricky with a fast gainer because of  both CNS and muscular fatigue.

Over time, we creeped the volume up and squat sessions would include heavy squats, compensatory acceleration squats, pause squats and 1 ¼ squats.  

Every deadlift session started with a squat variation used as a potentiation primer aka have Derek’s ass ready and sneak in a little extra squat volume before deadlifts.

In Derek’s own words:

“With the endless squat sets, my conditioning was on point, and I actually had to warm up really quickly at the comp because there were only 7 people in my flight, so I had 6 minutes between attempts.  The competition was a walk in the park compared to training.”

Application Point: You do not need to be ready for the Boston Marathon, but you need to build the work capacity to pull PRs after squatting and bench-pressing big weights.

CAT Sets

In meet prep, each primary lift heavy training session, Derek worked up to a triple, double, or single on the competition lift.  Subsequently, this was followed up by compensatory acceleration training, or “CAT” sets.

The CAT sets are executed with submaximal weight and are extremely effective for boosting limit strength and increasing your rate of force development. The basic premise pioneered by my mentor the late, legendary, Fred Hatfield is that you will generate powerful adaptive overload by training explosively with submaximal weights.

For faster gainers, this allows you to complete substantial volume without accumulating excessive central fatigue. Furthermore, multiple CAT Sets, “greases the groove”. You build the skill of the specific lift you are training by repeatedly expressing maximal force.

CAT training is a powerful strength tool that gave Derek back considerably more in terms of strength benefits than the effort required!

Application Point: Do not be a pussycat and skip your CAT sets. CAT sets build limit strength, absolute strength, technique, work capacity and are a hell of a lot of fun.

Josh’s 12-week bench press program covering CAT in expert detail.

Rest Intervals  

Density can be summed up easily: get more done in the same amount of time or get the same amount of work done in less time.

Piling on weight and adding volume are great strategies!

Usually, when volume is increased, workout duration drags on forever and eventually becomes counterproductive!  But, increasing density is one of the most under-utilized, highly-effective techniques to induce adaptive overload, aka build strength and/or size.

Last time Bill Kazimaier and I did a seminar together, I was discussing this and Kaz excitedly yelled, “Bust out the stopwatch!” As in, keep track of rest intervals and weaponize them to your advantage.

We watched Derek’s rest intervals like a hawk, so he was not in the gym for purposeless hours on end, this gave us another adaptive overload tool to manipulate the physiological laws of Overload and Overcompensation.

Application Point: You cannot keep just adding weight on the bar, if you bench press 200 today and added five pounds a week for three years, you would be bench pressing 980 pounds.  Look at other variables, heed Kaz’s wisdom and build your strength and work capacity by busting out the stopwatch.


 “Strong man equals strong back,” said Bill Kazmaier, one of the strongest men to ever walk the Earth. A man with a thick, wide back not only dominates on the powerlifting platform but silently screams functional power and seeps with masculine virility.

Derek trains five days a week and even during meet prep we hit the upper back five days a week; even in fast gainers, a majority of the time, the upper back recovers fast.

In Derek’s words:

“Having a strong upper back from all the work saved my ass on that 903 squat.”

Application Point:  Your upper back can take a licking and keep on ticking! The upper back recovers quickly.  REMEMBER, the lower back recovers very slowly, when increasing upper back frequency, use things like pull-up variations or lat pulldowns and keep rows chest-supported or on a cable. BENT OVER ROWS WILL TAX YOUR LOWER BACK, THEY ARE NOT A ONE-TO-ONE SUBSTITUTE FOR CHEST-SUPPORTED ROWS.

Final Thoughts

Derek is something special! And, with synergistic combination of the right mindset, work ethic, lifestyle, programming and genetics—I foresee the powerlifting world-record books being rewritten.

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