Managing Fatigue in Powerlifting


Written by: Kevin Cann



As a coach one of our biggest jobs is managing fatigue with lifters.  Fatigue seems to have this very negative perception with lifters and coaches.  Fatigue is not necessarily a bad thing.  We actually probably need it to get stronger.


Powerlifting is a very unique sport in terms of lifter attitude in my experiences.  For a sport that you may hit one to two PRs per year on comp lifts, many lifters complain about the day to day inconsistencies in training numbers very frequently.


I think this has affected how many coaches actually plan their programs.  Trying to be a powerlifting coach is pretty cutthroat.  I do feel lucky to be able to do this as my full-time job.  As one of my lifters put it yesterday, “Your job is pretty cool.”


This competitiveness in the field to be a coach drives decisions a lot of times.  I think many coaches are afraid of losing lifters if they feel they are not performing well consistently.  I know I have had these feelings in the past.


I do feel the coach’s responsibility is to educate the lifter and to help address their expectations.  If a lifter has this attitude, they will not last long in the sport.  Also, a lifter with that type of attitude will suck the life out of a coach.


Let us get back to the topic of this article, fatigue.  Sheiko was amazing at utilizing fatigue to drive progress.  His infamous, squat/bench/squat days would definitely tire you out.  By the time you get to the second round of your squats you are mentally and physically tired.


These training sessions force the lifter to really dig down mentally and physically to complete the session.  There is a ton of positive training pieces here.  Fatigue can be quite an uncertain piece of training.


Sometimes a lifter will be tired and crush a PR, sometimes they will be fresh and have a poor performance, sometimes the taper before a meet works, sometimes it does not.  Fatigue is a very complex topic and it gets even more complex when we look at how it effects performance.


This does not mean it does not exist.  It certainly does and we need to do our best as coaches to know our lifters and to know when to push them and when to pull back.  I went through a period where I pushed everyone and tried to let the weight on the bar dictate lighter days.


This was a great learning experience.  For one, external load is not the only piece that affects recovery.  Internal load also matters.  Westside alternates upper and lower days to ensure enough recovery between training sessions.


The idea is that the lower body muscles get a break while we train the upper body muscles.  This is true for part of the picture.  There is still a larger fatigue piece that effects the system as a whole.  I have seen this referred to as systemic fatigue.


If we come into the gym and just push it hard every day, we will experience some fatigue.  This is true even if we alternate upper and lower.  Westside also breaks it up by max effort and dynamic effort.  The max effort is heavy weights and the dynamic effort is very light weights moved quickly.


Sheiko used a combination of high, medium, and low stress training days throughout his programs.  Sheiko did not structure it the same way as Westside.  He planned it based off of each individual lifter.  Sheiko also wasn’t using very heavy weights, or very light weights.  The program utilized mostly moderate weights for higher frequencies and volumes.


I decided for a period of time that I knew more than these two coaches.  I did lay out rules for each lifter to follow to help them self-organize into these higher, medium, and lower stress training days.  However, this did not work out as planned.


We definitely got stronger.  There are no questions asked about that.  We got really strong, really quick too.  I learned a lot about fatigue during this time.  Fatigue did not really begin to effect performance right away.


There would be days when lifters would not hit the numbers they expected to, but in general progress was moving forward at an incredible rate.  I thought I figured it out.  Lifters just needed to train harder!  As if no lifter ever thought of this before.


Fast forward a few months and we started experiencing a lot more nagging issues than we ever did before. We were just running a simple linear program during this time.  I was witnessing lifters that would go from 5s to 1s hitting PRs almost every week, to hitting some PRs early on and fizzling out as the block continued on. Almost as if they lost endurance to get through a training block.  Much of this fizzling out was probably due to the nagging issues starting to pop up more frequently.


This brought me back to my time with Sheiko.  Training needs to be a balance of high stress days to drive adaptation, medium stress days to maintain strength, and low stress days to aid in recovery.


I am a huge fan of singles.  This is the sport and I truly believe we need to train the sport.  Westside alternates the singles between squats and pulls.  I want to do both with my lifters.  How can I manage to do this?  That was the big question.


Westside spaces out their training days so that they are well recovered to crush a max effort lift.  I do like this idea, but I am also not against having a little fatigue going into those sessions.  However, if we are going to be training this hard in a fatigued state, we need to pay a lot of attention and pull back when it is necessary.  So somehow, we need to be able to monitor fatigue as best we can.


I decided to space out the max effort lifts by 72 hours.  In the research it seems like this is the upper end of the recovery time period from a hard training session.  48 to 72 hours seems like the sweet spot.  We squat on Monday, bench on Tuesday, and pull on Thursday.  This gives the lifter an extra day between the deadlift max effort and the beginning of the next week to ensure we are getting enough rest to perform adequately.


The deadlifts do rotate weekly between max effort and more rep work.  Before deadlifts, my lifters will do some rep work for bench press.  This is usually 48 hours after max effort bench press.  I am usually still a little sore at this point.


This is right at the very beginning of the recovery timetable from the max effort bench press we did on Tuesday.  That means they are most likely executing these bench press reps with some fatigue.


This fatigue makes light weights a little heavier and will really force the lifter to focus on technique.  Usually a variation to work on technique is used here as well.  After this session, they get 4 days of rest before they bench again.  This ensures they are fresh to hit that max effort bench press again.


On Friday or Saturday my lifters will do rep work with the squats and deadlifts.  These are usually very light, maybe around 70% to 75% of 1RM.  However, there will be a lot of sets and reps here.  This is to get the volume in and to work on technique.


This would be a more medium stress training day.  A medium stress training day should be something the lifter can recover from in 24 hours.  This should not take 48 to 72 hours to recover from.  This means if they do this day on Friday, they have 72 hours to recover from this session, and if it is completed on Saturday, they have 48 hours to recover.  This should be enough.


These days at the end of the week are very tough even if they are light.  After maxing out all week, usually with backdowns after, the lifters are pretty tired.  This makes the lighter weights feel heavier and challenges technique even more.


The coach needs to pay attention here.  My lifters write RPEs in next to all completed sets.  I want these day 4 lifts to be around an RPE 7.  The backdowns after the max effort, I want to be between an RPE 7-9.


I keep volumes and intensities very consistent here to help me monitor fatigue.  If the 70% of the max effort lift for a 4×4 is constantly an RPE 8, but all of a sudden with a variation it is an RPE 9, it will catch my attention.  If the day 4 squats and deadlifts are usually around an RPE 7, but they are creeping up to an RPE 8-8.5, it shows we are building some fatigue.  When this happens, I will tend to pull back a little and continue to monitor the RPEs.  Here instead of a 4×4 at 70% for backdowns we may do a 4×3 at the same weight.  On day 4, I can leave it the exact same to see if it improves, or I can scale it back a little.  I do both very frequently.


Our max effort work rotates into rep work at times too.  If I think a lifter needs a break, or we hit a true RPE 10 in an exercise, the following week they will get some sets and reps at around 80% of 1RM.  This is very similar to what Sheiko does.  There will be 4-5 sets of 2-3 reps at 80%.  The percentage is drawn off of the max effort from the previous week, so it is pretty accurate.


The more you get to know a lifter, the more you know when to do these things.  Every other week the deadlifts become sets and reps.  These are usually between 70% to 80% of 1RM and done for 4-5 sets of 3 reps.  Usually no more than doubles at 80% of the previous week’s max effort lift.


On these weeks, the last 2 training days of the week are lighter to moderate.  They should only require 24 hours to recover from.  This gives the lifter a 6 day break from max effort lifts.  This is a nice physical and mental reset.


There are also some weeks where there will be zero max effort lifts.  If a lifter hit all RPE 10s the week before, this is pretty common.  This is a week of all low to medium stress training days.  This is an easy week to recover from.


This turned out to be a lot longer than I had anticipated, but managing fatigue is a major component of a coach’s job.  Fatigue is not something to fear.  Training with fatigue is probably unavoidable because of work and other life stressors.  Mental fatigue can affect performance and for most of us our jobs are mentally fatiguing.  We have some lifters with physical jobs too.  Learning to navigate all of these situations takes experience.

Understanding Acute Fatigue….Or Not


Written By: Kevin Cann


I had a very good conversation with Quinn Henoch about acute fatigue.  I then posed this same question and had this same discussion with Mike Amato of Barbell Medicine.  I feel sharing some of these thoughts will be entertaining at the least.


The question that Quinn asked me was “Why can’t you squat your true 1RM for a double?”  My response: “Hold my beer.”  This led to a pretty long discussion afterwards.  I hope Quinn does not mind, but I am going to share his take on this:


“As with all of this, I think it is multifactorial, but yes (physical issues lead to not doubling your true 1RM).  I think physiology plays a role.  Everyone has a max at every rep range.  What stops them from getting 1,2, or 10 more reps, I don’t know-but I am not ready to discard physiology…I fully concede that the psychological element is a big time player.”


I think this is a fantastic explanation of the situation.  I actually agree with 99% of it.  Like most things, we agree on the majority, but get really hung up on the smaller pieces.  For now I am going to focus on that 1%.


I agree that it is an interplay between physical and psychological factors, that is undeniable. However, I am reluctant to call fatigue the culprit of the inability to double my 1RM and here is why.


ATP-PC lasts for about 10 seconds.  A hard single is 3-5 seconds.  I do not see ATP being an issue here.  If we were discussing a triple, perhaps.  A more confusing piece of this puzzle lies with our motor units.  This excerpt comes from “A motor unit-based model of muscle fatigue” written by Jim Polvin and Andrew Fuglevand


“Fig 5C shows the force contribution of the individual MUs over the course of the 100% force trial.  It is important to note that, at the outset of the trial, before any fatigue occurred, the forces produced by the highest threshold MUs were less than their theoretical forces.  For example, MU120 had a capacity to generate 100 times more force than MU1, yet its initial force at 100% MVE was only 57 times greater than MU1. This was due to: a) the imposed “onion skin” organization that limits the maximum firing rates of high threshold MUs to be less than that of low threshold MUs, and b) the briefer contraction times of high threshold MUs which decreased their normalized firing rates and led to lower forces.  This implies that there is a reserve capacity of force that is not normally accessed even during maximal voluntary efforts.”


Is it fatigue if our body is holding reserves, or is it just the fact that we are not trained or adapted to handle that?  Is it that we accept that our 1RM is our 1RM, and we believe that we can’t double that, so we accept we can’t?  To be fair, no one knows the answer to this, and we are most likely far away from that answer, but it is fun to think about.


The majority of this research is performed on endurance events.  This is due to the fact that inducing measurable fatigue with intensity, in a laboratory setting, is very difficult, if not impossible.  It gets even more difficult to measure afterwards as central and peripheral fatigue recovers very quickly.  Muscle damage is the only measurable piece that lasts more than a few hours.


This does not mean that fatigue is not present.  We can’t measure it.  This probably speaks more to our lack of understanding with what it is.  It also does not rule out that it is not a culprit in this situation.


Quinn then asked, “But could “acute fatigue” not just be a proxy term for the accumulation of factors that cause us to fail a set?”  This made a light bulb go off in my head.  We are disagreeing about “fatigue” in this case because we are defining it differently.


I have always associated fatigue with being tired, either physically or psychologically.  I have watched lifters miss a weight 2 weeks in a row, only to come back week 3 and hit it, and never miss it again.  We did not pull back in these cases.  In some we pushed even harder.  These lifters weren’t tired, they just weren’t adapted was my response to myself.


With a different definition, I think communication can be improved on this topic.  I proposed this definition of fatigue to Mike Amato:


“A decrease in performance that is a result of psychological factors that include mood, perceptions, expectations, and cultural beliefs, as well as physical properties that include available energy stores, heart rate, and core temperature.  These two pieces are not exclusive as it is the same individual. Biological processes such as motor unit recruitment is a combination of both physical and psychological factors and is a contributor to decreases in performance.  Fatigue is a multifactorial process that extends beyond the feelings of exhaustion and tiredness.”


Mike made a great point; it does not always decrease performance. Adding in after the decreased performance; decreased motivation, and/or increases in pain sensitivity is important. We can be fatigued and still driving progress forward, but for how long?  In these situations we see a loss of motivation and increases in pain sensitivity.  Often these issues are due to factors outside of the gym, and not the training itself.



Having a better definition of fatigue can allow for more productive conversations regarding the subject matter.  I think many coaches view fatigue as being tired and needing to pull back.  I think this definition highlights how complex fatigue is and how we do not always need to pull back when a lifter is fatigued. However, sometimes we do need to pull back.


This is just a start on the topic.  More to come.

You Are Not Overtraining: Unless You Believe You Are


Written by: Kevin Cann


I put up a very quick post about this yesterday and it garnished a bit of attention.  Due to that attention, I want to write it all out for a better understanding since we should not just be quoting Instagram.


I have always struggled to understand overtraining in the strength sports.  I have played sports my whole life.  I did far more work in those sports than I do in the gym as a strength athlete.  On top of that, we still went to the gym and trained hard!


I believe those sports set up my expectations and beliefs in a way that I am not afraid to work hard, and I will work through some pain.  Powerlifting in America is unique as it becomes attractive for those that don’t play other sports, or those that weren’t necessarily competing at a high level.


They may be lacking this same cultural experience that I was fortunate enough to have.  This can lead to some misunderstandings about training that actually lead to decreases in performance and even an increase in injury risk.


There is this unwritten understanding that lifting heavy tires out the central nervous system (CNS) and higher rep stuff tends to be more metabolically tiring.  This just does not hold up in the scientific literature.


There is a good amount of research that shows that duration induces higher levels of central fatigue than high intense short bouts of effort.  Interestingly enough when you look at the evidence in its totality it seems that CNS fatigue is very difficult to achieve.  In fact, many studies were unable to even show CNS fatigue.


The markers tested in this research tend to show no significant changes.  It is purposed that CNS fatigue may actually be a factor in perceived exertion. Think RPE here.  The ability to perform is still in tact from a central fatigue perspective, but psychologically we may begin to perceive the effort as more difficult despite no changes.  In some cases there was even upregulation of the CNS.  This is the opposite of fatigue.  The theory here is that the central pieces are making up for peripheral fatigue within the muscles themselves.  This will likely be proven incorrect at some point.


This sounds like the body has a framework to control effort in a manner that would disallow any type of overtraining to occur.  We still possess the physical capabilities, but a feedback loop somewhere along this chain is making us perceive effort as more difficult.  This is why an end of session score is important to me.  This shows me the perceived effort of the lifter.


In studies where they show that CNS fatigue occurs the recovery time happens very quickly.  By very quickly I am talking 20 minutes! Many of the other studies showing no CNS fatigue occurred, if they tested after the exercise they may just have missed the window.  Perhaps those subjects were already recovered?  This is why putting that end of session score down right away is important. RPEs should be recorded immediately after the attempts.


Seems that the drop in performance that we see is more peripheral than central.  This means within the actual muscles themselves.  In an entry in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 2016 by Contessa, et al. suggested that central fatigue may not exist because all of the “symptoms” of it can be explained by peripheral fatigue.


Many reading this will then say, “Well maybe peripheral fatigue is responsible for overtraining?” Not so fast.  If peripheral fatigue results in decreased muscle contraction, which results in decreased performance, and this is coupled with the CNS perhaps increasing the perceived effort, how is that possible?


Performance is dropping and we are perceiving it to be more difficult.  This seems like a nice little built in defense against overtraining system within the human body.  We usually decrease weight and volume to “deload.”  This seems like the body has this well under control.


These measures are trainable.  As long as we don’t have any nagging things going on why would we decrease training effort in this scenario?  Psychophysiological pieces are perhaps more important than external loads for increases in performance.  As long as effort is still high, we can get some really good training here.


Training that builds the resiliency as well as the total for the lifter.  The body will control that perceived effort and the performance based off of what it is capable of under these conditions.  Now I am sure the question becomes “What if I am experiencing some nagging pain?”


Great question and one that we need to discuss often.  First, we need to deal with our cultural beliefs about pain.  Pain does not necessarily mean something bad.  However, we had this cultural shift to believe that at some point.  This requires a good relationship between the coach and lifter and the coach educating the lifter on some pain science.  This is a big conversation for another time.  I have talked in depth about these concepts on my podcast, Boston’s Strongcast.


My theory behind this pain is that there are layers of feedback loops within the human body. Perhaps within some of these peripheral fatigue feedback loops we get the physiological experience of pain. These feedback loops contain our emotions, beliefs, experiences, and cultural upbringing.


An interesting anecdote here.  I have never experienced elbow pain while benching.  Lately I have had a couple lifters that we made some adjustments for on bench due to some nagging elbow pain.  With 50 lifters this is expected.  Nothing major, we dropped some frequencies, changed some angles, and carried on.


However, me dealing with this may have led to me experiencing elbow pain.  My elbow pain started around the same time as I was dealing with some with the group.  Even though I understand how these things work, there are subconscious pieces at play. I find this coincidence very interesting.  My volume has also been higher.  Perhaps load management here is not the only piece necessary for me to experience pain, but it is the totality of the information sent to the brain from the feedback loops?  Impossible to know, but very interesting.


We have these cultural beliefs and emotions regarding overtraining.  I theorize that these are the reason in which people experience “overtraining” symptoms.  We can all relate to how our feelings create physiological responses within the human body.


Ever have your palms sweat or heart race before a heavy squat?  Your anxiety is leading to those physiological feelings.  Ever experience the same feelings when you see your significant other? These physiological feelings are consistent, but yet different in many ways.  They can be a result of positive or negative emotions.


The pain experienced here from training can be very similar.  If we view it as a negative, we can create this scenario where it lingers around.  If we view it as a result of our hard work and not being anything to worry about. We adjust things if needed, or train through it wisely and it tends to go away pretty quickly.


In the absence of deformity, there is probably not structural damage being caused to tissues from lifting weights.  This is even true in acute onset of sharp pains, such as back pain.  This does not mean the pain is in your head.  You are experiencing physical pain at the place you feel it.  However, it is most likely psychological in nature.


By that I mean, tied into our emotions, past experiences, and beliefs.  Load management is definitely something to consider here as well. These types of things absolutely happen when you are working for performance.  This only becomes a long-term problem if you catastrophize it into one.  This is also a very long story for another day.


Those are my thoughts on overtraining from my experiences as a coach and athlete and my understanding of the current literature.

Fatigue: What Do We Really Know?

Written by: Kevin Cann


There is an old saying “The more I learn the less I know.”  I think this statement misses the mark quite a bit.  To be honest, the more I learned, the more I thought I knew.  If you truly want to know something you need to be observant.


Observing lifters going through training will tell you what you know and what you don’t know.  I had Jacob Tyspkin on the podcast, and he made a great point.  He said that general principles are all right until you narrow them down for the individual.


As coaches when we are trying to learn more, we are reading articles and books.  We are looking for answers in every place but the place that can give us those answers.  The only place where that answer lies is within each individual in front of us.


This is hard though. This requires us to develop our skills as a coach.  Learning to write a program is easy, learning to actually coach takes time.  I am still learning these lessons.


We have these general beliefs about volumes and fatigue management.  Like Tsypkin said, these general principles are true until we narrow it down for the individual.  When you look at this from an individual perspective it is very messy.  In fact, it is chaos.


If we were as simple as machines that just adapted to mechanical stress than we could predict and reproduce results based off of mechanical stress.  However, that is very rarely the case.  In my experiences results have never been reproducible.


We may get positive results from the same stimulus, but the extent of those results always is different. For example, maybe adding in pause squats led to a 10lb squat PR in a block, but the next time you use them you only get a 5lbPR, or 15lb PR.  It is never the exact same.


Of course there are other variables that go into that but using that example so you can see what I am saying.  Strength is not a linear process so why would we apply linear strategies to it?  If we truly want to know the answers, we need to ask the individual.


How do we do this?  We can’t just go up to our lifters and be like “Hey, what are the best volumes for you?”  They would have no idea.  However, they do have that answer and a well-constructed program can help you find those answers.


I gave the lifters freedom to come and get after it as long as they were physically and psychologically capable of it.  What I witnessed was pretty amazing.  When I started coaching, I would structure programs with high, medium, and low stress days.


I have never been a fan of classic deloads.  They never made a lot of sense to me.  Having a well laid out plan with enough high stress days to drive results, medium stress days to maintain, and lower stress days for recovery made more sense to me.


Around this same time I began working with Jeremy Hartman.  We had a good conversation about coaching, and he gave me a documentary to watch.  This documentary was about the weightlifter Dimas who won medals in 4 Olympics.


One part of this documentary really stood out to me.  He had said it took 3 years for him to get used to the new coaching style.  He went from a Soviet Training System to the Bulgarian Method.  This seemed difficult for him.


He didn’t totally buy in at first.  He asked the coach for more volume.  The coach collaborated with him and told him that he can take more warmup sets.  Over time Dimas adapted to it and the results were remarkable.


There are a couple of things here that caught my attention.  For one, the coaches willingness to collaborate for buy in.  This is more important than many think.  Also, that once he bought in and believed in the system, he not only adapted but excelled.


Learning more about the Bulgarian Method, coming from a Soviet System, was interesting to me as well. The Soviet System yielded great results within the Soviet Union.  However, here in America the results were not quite the same and I have a best guess for that.


In the Soviet Union they go to schools where powerlifting is a class subject.  They are taught all about the Soviet System.  Their perceptions and beliefs are that it is the best for strength training.  Here in America we do not have schools like that, we have Instagram.


The perceptions and beliefs of the American lifter is very different.  American lifters do not have the same beliefs in their coach either. This is why you see them constantly jump from coach to coach.  Cultural aspects are also a part of physiological strength along with the perceptions and beliefs of the lifter.


The Soviet System works well in Russia.  This is lots of submaximal volumes.  The Bulgarian Method works well over there.  This is less volume and more heavy sets.  Both of these programs work when it is in line with the perceptions and beliefs of the lifter and they have a good relationship with the coach. Again, it comes down to the individual.


I want to take into account all of this stuff with a program.  I want to structure the program in a way that is in line with their perceptions and beliefs, and that accounts for general strength principles at an individual level.


In doing so, I had to forget about a lot of what I thought I knew.  I set up training in a way that gave as much flexibility as I think I can, and I just observed.  What I observed was that volumes don’t matter anymore than what the lifters perceive them to.


There is no magical number of lifts or tonnage for each lifter.  Our understanding of overload is weak at best.  If the lifter feels they got a good training stimulus, chances are they did.  We are led to believe that as we train, we build up fatigue, see a dip in performance, deload, and supercompensate and come back stronger.  This isn’t true either.


This works sometimes and doesn’t work others.  It also never works exactly the same way.  However, many times we hit PRs in the middle of training blocks when fatigue should be high.  So what does this mean?


This tells me that the general idea of mechanical stress overload and supercompensation is poorly understood.  We need to let performance dictate decisions and when performance decreases, we need to stop and think for a minute.


If performance decreases and you believe that the fatigue aspects are true, you will do whatever you can to dissipate that fatigue.  This may work, but it very well may not work.  In cutting down work and deloading here you may actually limit the adaptations of the lifter.


Chances are if they just kept plugging away, they would adapt and come out stronger.  This is of course assuming that there are no glaring physical pains that are negatively effecting performance.


We definitely need enough training to elicit a training stimulus.  All my lifters get 1 to 2 hard sets as we call them.  These sets are anywhere from an RPE 8.5 or higher.  We do this every training day unless the lifter has some soft tissue thing flaring up.  Even then we may just tweak the exercise and carry on as usual.


What I have learned from doing this and just observing is that fatigue does not affect performance like we think.  In many cases lifters will start to feel a little banged up, like elbow pain, or back tightness, or knee pain.  We keep at it and the pain goes away and they start hitting these continuous PRs.  That is adaptation right there.


If the pain is altering mechanics or decreasing performance, we don’t just plow through.  We make the adjustments that are needed in those scenarios. There is the athlete taking their low stress day for recovery.  Most of these pains recover very quickly.


I actually think pain and “fatigue” in powerlifting is more psychological.  This doesn’t mean it is in your head.  It is physical pain wherever you are feeling it.  However, there isn’t tissue damage.  You can still make the pain worse too so hear me carefully.


Outside of the acute fatigue that builds up within a training day, the days after are also more psychological in my theory.  The recovery aspects of training from a physical standpoint are quick.


This doesn’t mean you just say you are ok, and you are.  This is happening at the subconscious level and it is tied to our beliefs, perceptions, and emotions as well as our cultural upbringing.  Those that played sports tend to recover “faster” in my experiences.


I also believe this can be trained, but it requires a strong relationship between the athlete and coach. This requires strong communication between the two.  With that said we shouldn’t be afraid of fatigue.  There is a lot to be gained from training in a fatigued state and still hitting PRs.


Once the PRs stop it is time to change the stimulus and repeat it all over again.  This usually means we alter the exercise a bit to attack what I see as a weakness.  This weakness is either a strength issue or an efficiency issue.  We feel out the exercise and then right back to loading it up.