Written by: Kevin Cann
A lot of people will shit on max effort work in the powerlifting world. They will say that it is too hard to recover from, dangerous in terms of injuries, and that technique will suffer. These situations, although I disagree, I do find that there is some merit to them.
However, with that said, heavy singles are the sport. At some point you need to actually train the sport. This is not just from a physical perspective, but also mental. Lifters need to train with consequences so that they can learn to deal with adversity.
That is what training is for in any sport. You practice being prepared for game day. All too often you will see a lifter face adversity on the platform and crumble. The reason many times is that they did not train with consequences and learn how to deal with adversity in training. The first time that they are encountering adversity is on the platform. This is not being prepared for game day.
I had a discussion with a friend the other day about missing reps in training. I know there are many great coaches and lifters that say you should never miss reps in training. I definitely see and understand their point, but I disagree.
Many of the lifters that I have coached that did not miss reps in training, did not know how to handle a missed rep on the platform. They would get emotional and hang their head. This fear of missing would always lead them to want to be ultra conservative in attempt selection as well.
This 9 for 9 mentality is for beginners. If you are pushing your limits, you will miss. This goes for training and the platform. Now, I am not saying to miss all of the time. There is definitely a point where missing too often can derail momentum and hurt certain lifters emotionally. You should miss occasionally as this shows you are pushing yourself. Learn from the miss and get better. If you miss too often you are just making too many bad decisions.
I tell my lifters to leave 5-10lbs on the bar each week. This way week 2 and week 3 we can go get that extra weight. If the lifter truly hits a max, then we use rep work around 80% of 1RM here. We run 3 week waves with the same exercise. On week 3 I tell them that if everything feels good, to send it. This gives them an opportunity 1 time per month to really challenge themselves and see what they are capable of.
These scenarios are extremely important to lifter success. This does not mean that we just go ham all of the time. In actuality, over 90% of our work in the gym is technique work. Technique is still the most important aspect of training to me, but straining is also important. Sometimes there needs to be adjustments made to the program to allow each lifter to work on their biggest weaknesses.
If a lifter has a technical issue in the squat, I will often place deadlifts on day 1 in place of the max effort squat. We will get the strain by pulling heavy here. This is similar to what Westside does by rotating squats and deadlifts as lower body exercises. From there we can really just focus on the technique of the squat. In this case, the lifter will get 2 less max effort exposures in a month.
However, we will push the intensity of the squat work up a bit. If we hit a max effort squat day 1, I look for an RPE of 6 to 7 on the next squat day to help improve some technique, rate of force development, and allow the lifter to recover. If we are decreasing max effort exposures, I like to work this RPE up to an 8 to 9.
If technique is our goal that means we cannot just overload the comp lift. We need to find a variation that targets the motor control we are looking for, at a load they can control and improve at, and at a rep scheme that raises the relative intensity.
I have one lifter that loses the control in her hips at the bottom of the squat. This meant doing 65% of 1RM, box squats, for a 5×5. Her last set RPE was recorded at an 8.5 here. This gives me a good baseline to start. Once improvements are made, we challenge it with heavier loads. We can repeat this each week and just try to make it better. When the intensity falls below an RPE 8 and it looks good, add weight. No need to rush this.
If we added weight too soon, the lifter would not be able to control the positions and it is very likely that the exercise would not have the intended outcome. If the exercise was performed with too little weight, it would not transfer over well to the heavier weights.
We can also use fatigue here to increase relative intensity of lighter loads. If I take that same 5×5 at 65% and put it on a day after heavy pulls I can make that same weight more difficult. Fatigue challenges the lifter’s ability to maintain technique. We can also just bench before squats to induce some fatigue too. Sometimes it is better to challenge the lifter’s ability at the same load for a while until it improves instead of just adding more weight because we think we should.
We cannot lose sight in all of this of maintaining other skills required in the sport. Max effort lifts are still important. They just may have less emphasis at given times while the athlete works on another weakness. Maybe in some cases we only do a max effort lift every other week to give us more time to work on other weaknesses.
As usual it always depends on the lifter and the weaknesses analyzed by the coach.