Why More Volume is not the Answer

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I know many programs are heavy volume based.  This is not to say that they do not work.  They definitely can.  I was on one for 3 years working with Boris Sheiko.  My number of lifts stayed very close to the same over that time period, but my maxes were going up which made the absolute values of given percentages heavier.

 

This makes us step back and define volume.  I define volume as number of top sets.  Think RPE 8/8.5 or higher.  If you use percentages this would be 80-85% or higher.  Based off of this definition my volumes did not change as the number of lifts and the effort of those lifts was pretty similar.

 

My workload increased over time.  This is sets x reps x weight.  The majority of my sets were performed with the 3-6 rep range, with an average intensity of 70% plus or minus 2%.  This included all warmups of 50% of 1RM and greater.

 

This definitely worked.  I saw continued progress for 3 years.  Now, I was a beginner.  I could have seen that progress doing anything, but I do believe this was an extremely well done program.  For a coach that speaks a different language, and I discussed things over email, this is exactly what I needed.  It is also what I needed as a newer lifter.  Just follow the program.

 

I gave my lifters similar programs following the rules that Sheiko laid out.  What I saw was that my lifters were hitting walls and getting stuck.  This may just be because I was not good at manipulating these training volumes, assessing the lifts and assigning the appropriate variations, who knows.

 

Dave Tate says that all sticking points are either mental, technical, or physical, I would throw an and between all of those too, as there can be a whole pile of issues sometimes.  I noticed for many the issues were mental.

 

The lifters were getting nervous when they were faced with heavier weights.  In a Sheiko program, most sets are performed at 85% of 1RM and less.  This does not disregard the mental, but it is for the mental aspects of higher level lifters in a different culture.

 

Submaximal weights build success.  You never miss.  This is a big argument for those that utilize these types of programs.  You train with success you should see success on the platform.  I was dealing with less experienced lifters in a very different culture.  This is where we made a switch to lifting heavier.

 

What we see in the literature, as well as what I have seen in the real world, is that if you want to get better at lifting heavy singles you need to lift heavy singles.  Heavy singles are the sport.  In any sport I have ever participated, practicing the sport has always been important.

 

I know some programs will do a single at like an RPE 8.  This is not to make waves, but just my thoughts on this.  To me a single at an RPE 8 is a walkthrough in a sport practice.  It does not have the psychological pieces tied to it like a more maximal effort attempt.  There is not risk of consequences, like a missed rep.

 

When I discussed training with Dr. Keith Davids, he spoke about training with consequences as this carries over greater to competition.  We underestimate the importance of sports psychology with our lifters because it is difficult to track.  Volumes and intensities are easy to track.

 

We can’t just max out all of the time.  It would be great if we could, but just like with other sports, intensities of practice alternates.  One reason is for recovery.  There is some positive recovery stuff from singles.

 

Singles for one come with lower volume.  CNS fatigue is not a thing.  I honestly feel this may just be a myth from equipped lifters.  I know I get some crazy brain fog type issues going on after being in the equipment to lift.  I do not see this with raw lifters.  Singles are easier to recover from in a physical sense.  Psychologically, probably not and that is the issue.

 

The singles get the lifters in and out of the gym.  This gives them greater recovery time.  My lifters all work full-time jobs.  The more efficient we can make training the better.  Nothing is more efficient than heavy singles.

 

Variation allows us to hit these singles almost every week.  If a previous week had a very tough single with a variation, we will use a percent of that for reps the following week to change it up.  Sometimes there just is not any place to go.  This follows all of the guidelines that Sheiko laid out.

 

The percent is accurate as it comes from a max effort attempt from a week ago.  The number of lifts and average intensity follows what he taught me.  This addresses the technical and physical components of the lifts, while giving the mental a break and not forcing a miss in training.  We usually do light backdowns after the singles to work on technique and just build some workload.

 

Building workload is important for conditioning.  Having the ability to do this increases the lifter’s ability to recover from training.  If we need to pull back to give them a break, I can remove these and just replace them with more bodybuilding style exercises.  I prefer this workload to come from some form of the lifts as there will be greater carryover from them for our totals.

 

The second half of the week is rep or dynamic work.  This looks very similar to what it did when I was following a stricter Sheiko program.  We do utilize some of Westside’s ideas on dynamic work as well.

 

This is for load management.  Sometimes the lifters need a wave of lighter weights to just move around and recover.  These days will also utilize variations to increase technical efficiency as well as attack weaknesses.

 

These rep and dynamic days are not going to build 1RM strength that great.  They instead are assisting in the growth of 1RM.  Remember all sticking points are mental, technical, or physical.  These days address those needs without crushing the lifter.

 

It is not like our programs are just singles and we disregard volume.  There is a decent amount of volume in there.  If we define volume as top sets of RPE 8/8.5 or higher, than we probably have more than most.  This is with heavy singles in training, so greater specificity and carryover to increasing 1RM.

 

Our workloads are probably far less than others.  Our total workload for deadlifts is very low.  Our frequency is much lower than most programs I see in the USAPL.  This leads to a few of my lifters telling me that they think they need more volume.

 

Again, how are we defining volume?  In most cases they just want an increased number of lifts.  First, we need to identify what the actual issue is.  Is it mental, physical, or technical?  Is increasing the number of lifts going to correct one of these issues?  Maybe, but there is a lot we can do before increasing number of lifts.

 

First off, many lifters think they are stuck when they really are not.  This shit is not linear.  There will be periods of time where you do not hit PRs.  If you put 5lbs on each lift every 3 months, that would be 60lbs on a total each year.  That is a lot.  Progress happens incrementally over a longer time scale.  Yuri Belkin went 5 years without a PR.  All of us will experience these periods.  Learn to enjoy the sport and not chase numbers or you will quit.

 

Increasing workload can make you stronger.  Lots of lifters on a higher frequency, higher volume program, get really strong really quick.  However, the long term success of a program like that is debatable.

 

Equipped lifters tend to have longer lifting careers.  They also tend to not do as much volume as raw lifters.  This is just a correlation though.  They also lift higher absolute loads.  So lower volume, higher intensity.

 

Now, it could just be that they experience greater variability in training so less psychological burnout.  These are just observations without any science to back it up, but something to think about.

 

Someone like Dave Hoff has been training for almost 20 years.  He went years with minimal increases in total.  By minimal, like a couple pounds each year.  He just competed and added about 100lbs to his total.

 

I am not there to see him train, but his absolute loads are enormous.  He is staying healthy enough to continue to break world record totals.  I understand it is multiply and not drug tested.  That does not make me want to disregard that information.

 

I am not sure there are examples of that with higher frequency, higher volume programs.  The Russians have over 10 years of lifting experience before they get into a program of those higher volumes.  They have a much larger base than the Americans doing them.

 

Perhaps those Americans with a long bodybuilding background are more prepared for that style of training. This is not the majority of the lifters performing these programs.  They have a limited athletic background and just jump right into it.  Sheiko recommended 3 days per week for beginners, and some of these beginners are training 5 days per week.

 

This makes me reluctant to add in barbell lift volume/workload. If they want to do more, hit more bodybuilding as long as you can recover from it.  I do not think this will make their totals greater, but it increases their tolerance for workload.  This may lead to a longer career.  It may not either.  Perhaps all we need is a stable training program that looks at technique first, before increasing workload.

 

This makes recovery easier for the lifter and increases in workload more gradual.  Remember, Sheiko did not increase my number of lifts over 3 years.  My workload just increased gradually as I got stronger.  If I did not get stronger, it stayed the same.

 

Exercises were selected to work on technical inefficiencies.  We keep a lot of what we did back then, or better have slowly returned.  We do this in combination with max effort singles.  We focus on mental, technical, and physical pieces of training.

Effort in Training

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I had a conversation with my coach, Jeremy Hartman, earlier this week.  It was mostly about how my training is going.  One of the things I told him that I liked about the program was the heavier sets.

 

He had mentioned his time at Westside and how they lift heavy often.  Westside has many faults in their programming for raw lifters, but there are some things that we can learn from them.

 

I think effort and mental toughness are the two biggest takeaways from a program like that.  I love taking singles with my lifters. However, we don’t max out.  We will work up to a single at around an RPE 9. We also do not do that every week. This may happen 1-2 times in a 4-week block and could be with a variation or the comp lift.

 

Lifting heavy builds confidence and mental toughness.  Most lifters that begin with me don’t understand what average training strain feels like.  They are capable of so much more than they think, and it is my job as a coach to show them that.

 

Most people come in and are scared of the squat.  Putting the right weight on the bar to get them to strain to their capabilities while not missing repetitions is critical to developing a lifter.  Through effort and coaching we build confidence and mental toughness.  This is often the reason my lifters get big jumps on their totals early on when working with me.

 

It is not necessarily the program.  It is hard to nail down a program that fits that lifter right away.  It is through teaching them the mental aspects of the sport while working hard.  Fixing technique issues goes a long way here as well.

 

However, the technique issues we tend to fix are bar placement, head position, and elbow position. With national level lifters that the technique is good enough and they have some experience to tolerate some higher volumes, they are putting 60-80lbs on their squats in a few months.

 

Emily went from a 230lb squat to 300lbs in 16 weeks

Doug went from a 336lb squat to a 420lb squat in 16 weeks

Danielle Nguyen went from a 235lb squat to a 305lb squat in a year

Mike Agius went from a 450lb squat to a 495lb squat in 20 weeks

Maytal went from a 300lb squat to 365lbs in 16 weeks

Mike Damico is taking his previous best squat for singles in training at a conservative RPE 9 in 12 weeks

Jess Ward has taken 315lbs for 3 sets of 4 and 325lbs for 4 sets of 3 in the squat when her max is 350lbs in 14 weeks

 

This list does not include the beginners.  I do not include them due to beginner gains.  Everyone included in that list is qualified or has competed at Nationals.  This list does not include Kerry Sachs, Nick Santangelo, and Dave Rocklage who are all ranked in the top 25 in the squat in the USAPL database for 2018, with Kerry being number 11.

 

When we talk about programming we always talk about volumes, average relative intensities, load management, and exercise selection.  We very rarely discuss the mental aspects of the sport, which are more important than many people think.  It is not all about mechanical stress.

 

Mechanical stress is extremely important and all of those things I listed matter, but we need to find a way to include the building of confidence and other mental aspects of the sport.  We can do this with effort.

 

Effort is an internal feeling.  What the lifter feels and what the coach sees can be very different.  There needs to be some middle ground reached here between the 2. Oftentimes the weight feels heavy to the lifter but looks easier to the coach.

 

These are the opportunities to add some weight to the bar.  It has to be enough weight to be harder, but not too much.  Missing a heavier weight can actually shatter their confidence. Although, I do think learning it is ok to miss repetitions is a valuable lesson as well in this I need to go 9 for 9 world.  However, we need to learn to miss the weight because it is too heavy not because we are scared.

 

Research shows us that rep ranges between 3 and 6 with 1 to 4 reps in reserve (RIR) are best for hypertrophy and strength.  Tim Gabbett also talks about “Training Smarter and Harder” in his research on the acute chronic work ratio (ACWR).

 

The ACWR is a monitoring tool for athlete readiness.  The chronic workload is the 28-day average for volumes and the acute workload is this week’s volume.  If we divide the chronic workload by the acute workload, we get a ratio.

 

A ratio between .80 and 1.30 is deemed the sweet spot.  This is the ratio that athletes tend to see a decreased risk of injury.  Training is protective against injury, but too much and we run the risk of increasing our risk.  That ratio allows us to get enough work, but not too much.

 

This ratio is important if we want to increase the effort of training.  I want training to be hard.  It builds physiologically strong lifters, but also mentally tough lifters. I like the top sets being at an RPE 8 and 9.

 

This could mean for variations, higher rep sets (between 4 and 6 reps), or singles in the comp lifts. No matter how we look at it, if last set RPE is the same, tonnage is the same, number of lifts are the same, and average relative intensities are the same we can get creative.  In this case a single at an RPE 9 with back off volumes of equal tonnage, and average intensities equal to a 5×5 at a LSRPE 9 is no different.  In fact, the single has some added benefits mentally for the lifter.

 

Our programs are moderate frequency, moderate volume, and high effort.  The more veteran the lifter, the more volume that they get. We earn the right to lift more weight. The ones that have been with me for a while get a lot of volume with a lot of effort, but they were preparing for that the past couple years of training.

 

How we organize that total tonnage, average intensities, and effort is where I get to be creative as a coach.  Variations will not use as much absolute loads if we want to use those to push effort. This holds tonnage and average intensities down.

 

We can do hard triples of comp squats on one day and hard triples on a variation on another.  Even though the effort is the same, the comp squats are using somewhere around 85% and the variation is somewhere between 75% and 80%. This is a 5% to 10% drop in load while keeping effort the same.

 

The comp squats would be a medium stress day and the variation would be a lower stress day due to the drop-in load.  The other squat day will probably be something with higher volumes.  Perhaps 70% for 5 sets of 6 reps.  This is to build the volume and the number of lifts that we want. This would also be a higher stress day because of the total volume.  Volume is more stressful than intensity.

 

We need to organize training with enough low, medium, and high stress training days, and weeks. This allows the athlete to continue to make progress while decreasing the risk for injury and burnout.

 

We can have a lower stress week by just taking doubles in all 3 squats with a LSRPE of 8.  This drops total volume quite a bit but keeps effort high.  We need to make sure we have enough volume to keep the ACWR in check, and oftentimes this is what will dictate the number of sets.  These doubles tend to be around 90%.  This is a heavy training week and the athlete would never know that stress is lower.

 

There do have to be some boxes checked for the athlete to really push that effort.  They must come into the gym in a normal to excited mood. If they were just sick, or have a lot going on they are not allowed to increase weight, only decrease weight.

 

If we push one day really hard, we do not push all others.  Sometimes we will push one day really hard and drop weight or reps on a following day in the same week.  In the offseason we only do comp lifts on 3 days, so I am more open to pushing the lifts on all days here, because day 4 is just bodybuilding so loads are lower than they would be closer to the competition.  Deconditioning is a good tool to use if used correctly.

 

This article is getting long so I will cut it here.  These principles make the backbone of our training.  Perhaps I will do a podcast on it next week.