Flexible Programming


Written by: Kevin Cann


I have made a drastic change to the way I write my programs.  Ever since I started coaching this sport, I have tracked a lot of data. I tracked tonnage, number of lifts, average intensity, percent of lifts performed as competition, and ACWR (acute chronic work ratio).


Over the last several months I have kind of thrown out this data and focused on coaching.  I still used these Excel spreadsheets to write and deliver the program, but in the gym, I made calls on a day to day basis.


When I made these calls, I was not looking at the sheets and had no idea how these calls would affect any of this stuff.  I expected results to be better, but how much better they were was amazing to me.


This led me to making drastic changes with the way the program is delivered.  If you go back and read my articles and listen to my “flows of consciousness” on the podcast, you could see this coming.


I have discussed how 1RM was a constantly changing number on a day to day basis, how tonnage and volumes are poorly understood, how we monitor fatigue is inaccurate, how we are dynamic systems to learn motor control, and mechanical stress is just a small piece of everything.


I have discussed self-organizing technique.  I use a constraints-led approach where I alter the task to help guide the lifter to self-organize into more efficient technique.  We do this while monitoring estimated 1RM to be sure our changes aren’t leading us down a wrong path.


This has worked very well for my lifters.  It is not like humans are only dynamic systems when we talk about motor control. The human is a dynamic system in its entirety.  We need a dynamic program to be flexible and adapt to the changing needs of that person in front of us.


Learning a lot about chaos theory has helped me understand the complexity of this math.  No matter how much data I collect and use for my decision making, I will always miss the mark at some point.  The Excel spreadsheet will not be more accurate at decision making then I will be.


The reason for this is even if we collect data about mood and perceived effort, the data is not sensitive enough for it to work in an A.I. type program.  The coach with his or her knowledge base and experience is much more able to make the best decisions for the lifter.


I currently am writing the programs with exercise, sets, reps, and my suggested top weights.  None of these are set in stone.  I want to find a way to make the sets and reps more flexible, but there has to be rules.


The lifters have all of the power from here.  The suggested top weights are based off of previous performances.  If the weights feel heavy, they will adjust.  If the top sets are not heavy enough, they will adjust.


They are to do 1-2 hard sets each day as long as everything feels good.  These hard sets are done between RPE 8.5-9.5.  If they can complete all sets there and feel they should, they will. If they want to take less sets or more sets, they can.


This may sound like I am not doing much anymore in terms of coaching and “programming.”  I had a good talk with Dave about this and he made a very mature observation.  He said that the program is probably the least important part of getting stronger. It is about trust in the process and working your ass off.


I don’t disagree with Dave’s statement at all.  The program is probably the least important piece of getting stronger because it is rigid and not changing with the athlete.  Some of the other lifters were concerned that there wasn’t much structure to the program anymore.


They were used to coming in and just doing what was on the sheet until I told them to do something different.  There is still structure to the programs.  In fact, the structure is more complex.


Rules still govern the structure.  There are hard sets where intensity is high, multiple sets for volume, variations to help guide technical efficiency, and most programs are 4 days per week.  These rules are just not set in stone anymore.


We know that none of those above variables are the same for everyone.  At times we pretend we know they are.  Things like “High frequency is superior”, “That program is too low volume to work”, “You can’t lift heavy on a daily basis”, “Technique does or doesn’t matter.”  I could go on forever.


This takes us back to Dave’s statement about the program not being the most important thing.  All of these different programs work for different people.  In fact, many lifters jump from program to program and see success for a time period on each one.


Many will yell about the research out there.  Here is the thing about the research.  The study subjects are recruited, and they perform a new program for a short period of time.  Is it the periodized program leading to those results or the novelty of a new program?


The perception of the lifter is what matters most.  Lifters seek out coaches and programs because they believe that they will work.  This is what I believe drives that progress with a newer program.


This newer program meets the lifter where they are at, at that given time.  Over time the lifter changes and adapts.  The program stops working and they look for something different.


My goal is to create a program that identifies these changing needs and the program is flexible enough to change based off of them.  The lifters will self-organize into volumes, intensities, and frequencies that are best for them at a given moment in time.


This will require a lot of communication between myself and the lifters.  We are still going to track data, but it is going to be much simpler. They will use a mood score entering the gym, RPEs for lifts, and a session score at the end.


This mixed with communication will get processed by my intuition to make the best decisions to help guide each lifter to what works best for them at that given time.  The more I learn and the more experience I get, the better this decision making will become.


I am done looking for answers in an Excel spreadsheet.  I am going to train my coaching abilities.  The mind is a hypothesis testing machine.  I am actually getting rid of the spreadsheets all together.


Large amounts of data like that can create a confirmation bias that I do not want to alter my decisions. Also, the colors like green, yellow, and red will create a change in my decisions whether it is conscious or subconscious.


We will measure performance to make sure our decisions are leading us in the right direction.  I think the flexibility is important in the programming because this sport is way more psychological than people think.


The math suggests that strength gains are infinite.  I don’t think the math is wrong.  I think a lifter’s perceptions will limit the weight on the bar at some point.  Elite athletes usually have this irrational confidence in themselves.  It definitely distinguishes them from others.


There are acute fatigue factors that build up in a training session.  However, how long does it take for the person to recover from them?  It certainly doesn’t take that long.  Your CNS is not fried like you think.


If we take a hard triple on the squat, it probably takes 9 seconds.  This is 2 plays in the NFL.  Context is everything here.  We recover much quicker from this than many think.  From a physical standpoint.  Perhaps our perceptions are what holds us back in this situation?


Any lingering drops in performance, in my theory, comes from something psychological.  The pain that we experience from training is the same thing. It is not due to tissue damage. It is more psychological in nature.


This doesn’t mean it is in your head.  The pain is where you are feeling it.  Sometimes we train through it and sometimes it is better not to piss it off.  We alter positions for a few days and go from there.  It matters, but it isn’t structural.


This explains the high rates of individuality seen with this.  I also feel this can be trained to improve.  However, having a flexible program that meets the needs of the lifter addresses these individual differences.  It also addresses the changing individual.


If these internal factors are more important on a macroscopic scale how do we measure them? As of right now I believe the answer is we can’t measure them in a sensitive enough way to get the information we desire.  We need to trust our education and experience to make these decisions.


I believe there is a lot of strength to be had out of self-efficacy.  I will expand on these topics at a later time as this article is getting longer and longer.  I am open to questions and discussions on this stuff as well.  Keep that in mind.


Is It Time to Move on From My Data?

Written by: Kevin Cann


I have written about my change of focus coaching over the past 5 or 6 months.  I have mentioned how I have way more questions than answers. This was a drastic shift in my thinking as I believed that I had more answers than questions before.


How could I not think that I had all of the answers?  I have this amazing Excel spreadsheet that tracks everything that is important.  It tracks ACWR (acute: chronic work ratio), tonnage, number of lifts, percentage of those lifts that are competition lifts, average intensity, breakdown of tonnage based off of squat, bench press, and deadlift.


With all of this data I should have been able to guarantee progress for everyone.  However, this just did not happen.  The ACWR would drop below the recommended .8 for 2 weeks before a competition.  The competition would be a spike in workload, but no one was getting hurt.


This worked the other way around as well.  A few lifters tweaked some things when their ACWR was around 1.0.  This is far below the 1.5-2.0 that is recommended to avoid going over.  At other times it could be over 2 for weeks and the lifter would feel great.


I had also noticed there was a huge individual difference with this number.  I brought this up on my podcast with Gabbett and he said this was common.  He also said that this is a monitoring tool and shouldn’t be used to make decisions. The coach needs to use his gut.


I track tonnage as well. This is the data I use to calculate the ACWR.  I would also try to push tonnage to drive results.  This would work sometimes but would not work other times.  This can be said about all of the other data points. Sometimes they helped, sometimes they didn’t.


If I plotted these points on a graph, they would be chaotic.  It is easy to disregard the outliers and chalk up those to something different.  That is just not my personality.  I tend to become hyper focused on the outliers because I feel the answers to larger questions lie out there.


You can see how much I have focused on this over the years with my articles.  This led me to an understanding that strength training is nonlinear. When I first understood that I kind of just threw my hands in the air and accepted it for what it was.


I began to learn more about nonlinear systems.  I started with skill acquisition and a constraints-led approach.  This made me realize that not every lifter was going to learn the same way or react the same way to a training stimulus.


This offered me some insight into how to deal with the progressions, regressions, skips, and jumps of a nonlinear system.  I decided to treat strength as a skill since it is nonlinear and requires nonlinear theory to solve.


I decided to stop structuring my training in the high volume/low intensity, followed by a drop-in volume and increased intensity, followed by increased specificity.  This was assuming that strength is linear and falls within a definitive timeline.  It does not.


This led to me read more about chaos theory in an attempt to understand irregularities.  One part of the current book I am reading really caught my attention.  This scientist named Lorenz was working on weather forecasting.


At the time everyone was hung up on Newtonian math.  The more accurate we are with the initial conditions the better our prediction will be. Lorenz asked what would happen if he started from a data point in the middle instead of with the initial conditions. His answer really resonated with me.


Each starting point yielded a very different outcome.  I went back and reread Kiely’s article “Periodization Paradigms in the 21stCentury: Evidence-led or Tradition-Driven?”  I reread it maybe 4 times.  This time with a much better understanding of dynamic systems.


I made a connection to what Lorenz was talking about with strength training.  Each day that a lifter comes into the gym they are a different person.  Those initial conditions are very far removed.  The further removed we are from them the less value they have in our predictive capabilities.


This means that we need an extremely flexible and adaptable program.  I rely more heavily on my intuition to make these changes than the data I possess.  I believe the data is actually very flawed.


I know there are many coaches out there that use data driven plans.  Many of these coaches are high level and have experienced more success than me.  This is solely my take on this and how I do things.


The data is based off of strength being a linear process.  In order for us to accept this we would need to disregard the outliers.  All training works, but we are trying to be the best possible.  In many cases the data doesn’t offer any answers to the question about the person in front of you.


One of my newer lifters, Marilyn, is a pretty smart chick.  She made a comment that really resonated with me.  She said that intuition just may be data collection done by the coach. Perhaps this is processed consciously and subconsciously based off of what I see.


This makes a lot of sense to me.  But what do I do with my fancy Excel spreadsheets and how do I collect data more efficiently?  One thing that I say a lot to my lifters is that the body only knows effort and the brain is what knows the weight on the bar.


Now, I feel we need to train the brain in this scenario in seeing some of those heavier weights, but ultimately perceived effort may be a better indicator of how hard a training session was instead of tonnage.


I think as coaches we like using things such as tonnage because it is easy to measure and track. We like having answers.  I am at the point now where I feel there aren’t any right answers, just less wrong ones.


I am not looking for something fancy to track this perceived effort.  Just maybe a number for me to know.  Perhaps I don’t even use numbers and just have them write some notes. These notes can go into my intuition to make decisions.


I am at the point where I know every number, I put on this will be wrong at times and there are no definitive answers, so I don’t want to spend time and money on something fancy. I am also going to start just giving number of sets to complete and ranges for weights, giving the lifter more freedom on a day to day basis.


I am done tracking all sets over 50% of 1RM.  I just truly feel it does not matter anymore.  I think we need to practice enough to get stronger.  I think some of this practice needs to be heavy, at least with RPE.  I just need to know how hard a lifter is perceiving that training to be.


Exercises will be decided based off of a constraints-led approach to improve technical issues that I deem to be important.  This variations will be individualized and heavy based off of RPE.


I will track how many hard sets each lifter does as well as performance.  I will make decisions based off of this and how each lifter is currently feeling.  I think our understanding of recovery from training is extremely limited.


Your CNS doesn’t take weeks to recover from overshooting an RPE.  I think at most you see around 4 days from bigger and stronger lifters.  I also believe that these efforts can be trained to be improved.


For example, if you have a lifter that is overly hyped all of the time, take their hype away.  Maybe go no music and they do the best they can under those constraints.  Teach them to not be so emotional when they lift.  This should be addressed the other way too.


If a lifter is constantly getting stressed out over their technique or their feels in training, this needs to be addressed.  Emotions have direct effects on physiological aspects and should not be disregarded.


My personal experience, not wearing my gear for a few weeks after a coopetition is actually a nice mental break from training.  For me there is a psychological piece to getting ready to lift.  Throwing on some flats and going bypasses this.  Just some food for thought.


Risk of injury in this sport is extremely small.  You will feel pain sometimes, this does not mean injury.  I just don’t see lifting leading to structural damage in the raw and drug free powerlifter.  Pain in these cases is less structural in nature and probably more psychological.



This does not mean we ignore pain.  This means we talk about it.  We see where the lifter’s head is at and if it is too uncomfortable, we alter positions for a couple training sessions and go from there.  My best guess is that this is a sign of fatigue, whether mental or physical.



I just do not think that my data captures the complexity of the human.  I am not sure any can.  I think at this point the best data to collect is to monitor performance and have effective communication with each lifter.  We may be able to even put a score on this communication to be able to compare it to other training days.


I am leaning towards rating each training day based off of perceived effort.  Just need to narrow down a scale that works best.

Understanding the Irregularities of Powerlifting


Written by: Kevin Cann


We all know plateaus happen in powerlifting.  It is something we take as expected.  We attempt to make some changes and we hope for the best.  Maybe this works, maybe it doesn’t.


I think oftentimes lifters change coaches at this point.  This tends to drive progress again.  This is a story for another time, but something I have been thinking about a lot lately.  I am not so sure it is the new program that drives progress again.


I think the new program plays a role, but I think it is much more than that.  I think the excitement of doing a new program drives that progress. Also, the lifters choose the coach for some reason.  I think this belief in that coach being able to help them also drives progress.  I think the exercises and program structure plays the smallest role.


This brings me to what I actually want to talk about today.  This is going to be more of a stream of consciousness I suppose.  I have been talking lately about all of the questions that I have in regards to training.  Things like “How important is volume?’, “How much does fatigue affect performance?”, and so on.


In attempting to understand these pieces and the variables that affect performance, I have been led down a very deep rabbit hole.  The majority of the people reading this will think I am an idiot spewing nonsense.  It just all depends on what pill you choose, the blue pill or the red one.


At the beginning of this rabbit hole was John Kiely’s article that I mentioned in previous posts. He explained how our modern periodization was flawed.  That we should not only concern ourselves with mechanical stress, but the whole human matters.


The person’s emotions, beliefs, and perceptions are actually part of their physiological strength. When someone does not see results with a modern periodized program, or they get hurt we chalk it up as an error somewhere and attempt to change it.  Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.


We see others doing well on a similar program and blame it on our genetics.  I am going to say something here that others won’t, it is not your genetics.  The Human Genome Project had hoped to discover one gene for one thing.  This turned out to be false.  Our genes are as flexible and adaptable as the rest of us. This is a story for another time.


I have always collected a lot of data as a coach.  I would use this data quite a bit in the beginning to drive decisions.  In fact, I was basically allowing the data to make the decisions.  Over time I began using this data to help me make better coaching decisions.  Now I am at a crossroads.


You see, even when I collect solid data, progress is not linear.  I have started making more decisions on a daily basis over the last few months.  Keeping in mind those data points, but also keeping in mind their inaccuracies.


I use a constraints-led approach to skill acquisition.  I put lifters in positions that punish bad technique and we lift heavy as long as the lifter is prepared for it, performance is on a high, and not too many nagging issues.


Even skill acquisition does not follow a linear line.  There will be progressions, regressions, skips, and jumps.  The same as adding more volume doesn’t always make someone stronger.  It isn’t like if we add 10,000lbs of volume in a month we get a 15lb return on our total. The math is not that clean.


I used this example in a post yesterday to help make sense of my thinking.  We look at $1 + $1 as equaling $2.  We like this because it is clean and easy with a nice defined answer.  The problem is that the dollar fluctuates on a daily basis.  If businesses adjusted prices on a day to day basis based off of these fluctuations it would be very confusing.


This is training. Prices fluctuate on a day to day basis based off of a number of factors.  None of which are linear by nature.  Using linear data can only help you so much in a nonlinear world.  This is chaos theory for powerlifting.


As coaches we need to forecast results for each lifter based off of the information we have.  The further removed from the information, the less I believe it actually matters.  I really don’t care about the data I have collected from a few months back. I tend to just focus on more present information.


I believe if we collect good data, we can identify trends with the irregularities for each individual. This would most likely not be an exact science but would give us better forecasting of the irregularities and how to handle them. Not just from past information, but from current information as well.


This predictive process needs to be a rolling data set.  Much like how movement is based off of predictive feedback and the more we move the more that predictive process gets updated.  This is what I keep in mind when I make coaching decisions.


I have thrown out a lot of what I used to believe and began dwelling in the unknown a little more. A lot more and the results are very surprising to me.  I have began taking each person as a complex problem to solve that will constantly continue to change variables on me.


Each person is their own complex nonlinear math problem.  The people who believe keeping it simple as the answer are missing the bigger picture.  Training is either good, better, or best.  Keeping it simple can be good training, but I don’t do anything to be good. I am competitive.  Just ask my kid how intense a game of Sorry will get.  I am in it to be the best.


This is a lot of hard work for the coach.  I am juggling quite a bit of information to try to make the best decision possible for each lifter.  I am also using a data set that is not quite in line with my thinking anymore.


It is not that this data is not important, it is.  It is just understanding its importance to that individual in front of me at that specific time.  It definitely keeps me on my toes and forces me to really embrace the art of coaching.


It has really forced me to be more flexible with my frequencies, volumes, intensities, and exercise selection.  I need to work on a new updated system for tracking data that goes along with my current thinking.  I will still collect the data I do now because I feel like it is good to have for no other reason than “Just because.”


This does not mean that the conventional way of thinking doesn’t work.  It definitely does, but it misses the mark in a number of areas and fails to treat the irregularities we see as important.  Just staying the course is usually the advice.  However, the course we take is not a well-defined straight line.

Coaching in Chaos: Embracing the Theoretical

Written by: Kevin Cann


There have been a few seemingly random incidents that have drawn me to write this article.  It started about a week ago when one of my lifters said she doesn’t like the idea of being a lab rat in an experiment. This was a good conversation even though it may not sound like that from that statement.


I wrote an article explaining a coaching theory that got grown men to bring out the poop emojis to tear it down and last night I read an article that said everyone that disagreed with the author was wrong.  This author offers zero reasons why he is right other than “it works” and the other person gave no reason why my theories were wrong other than “it’s stupid.”


Sadly this is the way of the world nowadays.  No one can have a discussion anymore.  In the absence of a discussion I am going to give some context into my thinking.  You see, everyone that has a coach is a lab rat in an experiment.


This is all theory. There are not many things that we know that are absolutes in strength training.  The only difference is that I embrace the theoretical while the others are dealing in absolutes that don’t exist.


I wasn’t always like this. There was a time too that I coached by absolutes.  It was easy to think I was on the right path because we saw results.  Of course we did, we are training.  As Fred Hatfield said, training is either good, better, or best. I was hanging out in the good range.


I was using “mobility” tools at this time as well.  Of course they “worked” at times.  I was tapping into the person’s expectation bias and the placebo effect.  In many of these cases the “issues” of the person were probably a result of the nocebo effect.


This past October when I was assessing my performance as a coach throughout the previous year something happened.  Every year I would ask myself questions and answer these questions.  The answers to my questions would dictate some changes to our training.


This past October was different.  The majority of the answers I came up with to questions were “I don’t know.”  I felt lost at first and there was a shadow of doubt that creeped over me for a brief period of time.


I knew volume was important. I would argue it was the most important aspect of training.  However, when I pushed volumes we didn’t always get stronger.  There was no optimal volume for each person where we saw results.


I had even run highly successful blocks over again with new maxes and we did not reproduce results. How can this be?  This worked before, why is it not working now?  Something would go poorly and I would blame it on something outside of the gym.


They are eating less, that is it.  That is why they aren’t getting stronger.  Poor performance on the platform?  Had to be the weight cut.  Do these things matter?  Absolutely. However, they are just a small piece of a larger puzzle.


That last part brought a lot of questions about fatigue and how it affects performance.  How can someone hit higher numbers when volume is higher than after we taper?  What about supercompensation?  Why didn’t this happen?


Through my experiences I have begun to realize that we do not know as much as we think.  My world was shattered for a bit.  Here I am a full-time powerlifting coach and I can’t answer basic questions about getting stronger.


I went back and reread Kiely’s article “Periodization Paradigms in the 21stCentury: Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven.”  I had read this article in the past and made some changes to the program.  I had allowed the lifters to have a bit more freedom and started monitoring some more internal data such as mood and RPE.  This time I read it through a different lens.


I had more experience as a coach.  My team has grown exponentially, and I think I was just seeing what happens with a large data pool using my current methods.  These experiences made this article make a lot more sense to me.


When I first read the article, I was reading it for answers.  This time I think I read it to ask more questions.  I was basically soul searching at this time.  After reading and rereading this article something clicked. Mike Amato and I had done a seminar that we titled “Embracing Uncertainty.”  I needed to just do that.


I needed to embrace the uncertainty of training and be a better coach.  A coach makes decisions based off of the information they have. The program is not the coach.  I was focused on the wrong things.  I was dealing with absolutes that just aren’t true.


I sat down and decided to look back over the years and to figure out what we actually know.  We know that volume matters, but how much is necessary?  Over the years I added in more heavy singles and these intensity intervals that allowed lifters to go up to a certain point if it felt easy.


These intervals had restrictions based off of load management monitoring which I will get to in a minute.  I noticed the more heavier sets we did the better results we got.  The number of lifts and average intensities were the same, I made sure of this.  With that being equal, heavier sets worked better.


The number of lifts and average intensities were the same because of my load management strategies. I realized I was allowing this monitoring tool to dictate training instead of myself as the coach using that information in combination with other information to make the best decisions for the athlete.


This brought me to my other question, what about fatigue management?  I was utilizing this load management tool because we know fatigue management is important.  However, how do we know when we need to pull back and when we should push it?


We don’t.  I do not think powerlifting is as taxing as many of the other sports out there.  I think we are capable of training much harder than we think.  The sport of powerlifting is one of the safest ones to participate in.  It is safer than running.


No one is blowing out an ACL lifting weights.  Our feet are stationary, and we are laying down for a third of it.  We deal with the occasional muscle strain and that is basically it.  I am talking about raw powerlifting.  Once we throw gear on and add steroids the risks of muscle tears increase.


So how can we monitor fatigue?  We can listen to what our body is telling us and what our performance is dictating. If we are experiencing some discomfort, we discuss it and alter positions or weight if necessary.


If performance is dropping we have options.  If we are far away from a meet, we can continue to push through.  This will force the lifter to adapt and progress will be on the other side.  We can also pull back for a few training sessions.  Let them recover a bit so we can have a high-performance training session sooner than later.


This brings me to my next point, the person’s emotions matter.  The lifter’s emotions, beliefs, and perceptions are a piece of their physiological strength.  This information needs to be taken into consideration into the decision-making process.


Next, because of my time with Sheiko I have the strong fundamental belief that lifting is a skill and technique is the most important aspect of training.  This doesn’t mean that the lifts need to look perfect, but we need to structure training in a way that focuses on these weaknesses.


I dove into the skill acquisition rabbit hole. I learned about a constraints-led approach and realized I had been attempting to do this without understanding the theory fully. This would allow me to put lifters into positions that punish bad technique and I can still load them up with heavier weights.


I now focus my attention on “effective sets.”  We perform 1 to 2 sets at an RPE between 8.5-9.5 on each exercise each training day. We pull back on these as performance and other fatigue measures such as discomfort dictate.


It is my job as the coach to guide them along the path of self-organizing technique.  This is from analyzing their lifts and altering the task by variation as well as presenting the appropriate feedback at the right times and in the correct manner.


Volume is important. I have decided to keep the number of lifts roughly the same and allow the hard sets to be utilized to make sure we get a minimum effective training stimulus.  When progress stalls we change things up.  Maybe this means we add more volume, maybe it doesn’t.


I think the volume has a protective effect to the lifter.  We make sure we are staying around baseline at all times.  When we pull back, we make sure that we don’t pull back too hard as spikes in acute workloads when chronic workloads are lower may increase injury risk.


I began coaching the whole person.  The mechanical pieces still matter, but so do the psychological.  I take the emotions of the lifter into consideration when making decisions.  Sometimes we will do things just to build confidence and momentum.  This can help the lifter to get their mind working for them rather than against them.  This also means getting to know them as a human being and showing them that you care.


Chaos theory is a form of math that focuses on dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to perturbations.  Within these seemingly disordered events we can see some order when we view it from a macroscopic view.  This is true of the people in front of us looking to get stronger.


A lot of the questions I could not answer in the beginning seemed like random disorder.  However, when I took a second to step back and take a larger view, I could see some order forming.  Hopefully as I gain more experience, I can continue to make more and more sense of this.



Embracing the Uncertainty of Strength Training: What Do We Really Know About Volume?

Written by; Kevin Cann


I have not been coaching the sport of powerlifting for too long.  This past Nationals was my 3rdone overall.  It is pretty crazy to look back and see how I was doing things from then to now.  In the beginning I told my lifters to just follow the program.


Hit those percentages and move on.  This worked very well as I believe it was aligned with my skills as a coach.  I was limited in my abilities but understood the layout of the program.  I began to see that there were some flaws to this and began changing things up.


Over the course of the next couple years I learned from as many other coaches as possible.  I have had some great conversations, made friends with these coaches, and learned a lot.  This really sped up my learning.  How we do things changed pretty rapidly based off of some of these conversations.


These coaches do things very differently from each other.  However, they all have pretty good success with their athletes.  I truly believe each of these coaches’ systems matches their skill set well.  Coaching is a skill.


With all of these different systems working well it can make things a bit confusing.  It also makes it a lot of fun.  It also raised a lot of questions for me.  Back in the fall, before nationals I sat down and really thought to myself about ways in which I can improve as a coach.


I asked myself a few questions and began to realize there were certain things we believe to be true, but it just doesn’t hold up to what we see.  I decided to trust myself more and the knowledge base I have as a coach and to embrace the uncertainty of training.


Some of the questions I asked myself were:


  1. How important is volume?
  2. How does fatigue affect training and can we truly monitor it?
  3. Is lifting heavy more dangerous than not and how much does that actually affect recovery?
  4. How important is frequency?
  5. Sheiko always told me technique was the most important aspect of training. Technique is a person’s skill under weight.  What do I know about skill development and can I train strength like a skill?


I will attack all of these questions in articles maybe.  Let’s see how far we get with the first one and go from there.  I tend to have a lot to say and I enjoy talking about this stuff.


How important is volume? We know that volume is important. We can’t just come into the gym and do 1 squat per week and get stronger.  There is a minimum effective dose that is necessary to get stronger and to make a more resilient lifter.  Higher chronic workloads have been shown to decrease injury risk.


We also know that if our short-term volumes exceed what we are prepared for our risk of injury increases. This is the acute chronic work ratio (ACWR) that I have discussed quite frequently over the last year.


I track daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly volumes by way of total tonnage, number of lifts, and average intensities.  I would use this information to design pre-meet blocks.  I would aim to increase volume or keep volume the same by increasing average intensity.


This worked frequently, but it also didn’t work 100% of the time.  I think the problem was that I cannot pinpoint someone’s exact volumes that would be “optimal” for that person.  I think I use too many variations for this to work because some come with lower weights being used.


I started working with Jeremy Hartman in August.  We were having a conversation and bells literally went off.  He had asked me about the program and how it was going. It was very different than what I was used to, and I told him how I liked having the heavier set at the end.


His response was “I like it to make sure we are getting a training stimulus.”  I immediately thought to myself “That’s it!”  I can’t pinpoint ideal volumes for everyone.  I do not possess that skillset and the variations throw off those numbers.


I can make sure we get at least a minimum effective training dose if I make sure we have a hard set in there.  By hard set I mean RPE 8.5-9.5.  I don’t want them missing reps, but if it happens, they need to be ok with it as it is part of the sport.


Previously they could increase weights on sets based off of these “intensity intervals” I came up with. Each rep range had a range of intensities for bar weight.  If they came in and they reported a normal to enhanced mood score they could increase weights up to the upper limit of that range.


If they came in and were not feeling well, they could drop it to the lower end, but no less.  This was to ensure that we kept our ACWR in the ranges that we wanted.  This worked better than not giving them that freedom.


There was a problem though. I was allowing the ACWR to dictate the weight on the bar without even noticing it.  There were days that lifters could have definitely gone up by more than what I allowed them.  My rules held them back.


I had a conversation with Tim Gabbett, the sports scientist that does the ACWR research, and he said that this is not a program, but a monitoring tool.  It should not be picking the weights.  The coach needs to use his eyes and gut feelings to make decisions.


I threw out the intensity intervals (without the lifters knowing) and began telling each lifter what to put on the bar.  We would get 1-2 hard sets for each lift each training day.  If a lifter needed a break, we just ran the numbers or decreased the weights a little.


In the past 3.5 months the results have been shocking.  The number of PRs that people are hitting for reps is mind blowing to me.


  1. Dave Rocklage-665lb squat (10lb PR), 315lb bench x 2 (best platform bench is 308lbs), deadlift 700lbs x 2 (best meet deadlift 666lbs)
  2. Danial Lau- 495lb Squat (20lb PR), 300lb bench x 2 (15lb all-time PR)
  3. Danielle Nguyen-consistently tripling her second squat attempt from November, 315lb deadlift x 2 (15lb all-time PR)
  4. Vicky Cai- 270lb squat (5lb PR), 330lb deadlift x 2 (335lbs is best)
  5. Emily Biberger- 305lb squat (5lb PR, tripled 285lbs last night for 2 sets)
  6. Tauri Green- Hit squat and bench PRs and has been handling 90% triples on the squat frequently on variations
  7. Kelly Gamache- tripled her 100% for 2 sets in her second squat session yesterday, benched 132lbs in August and hit 150lbs x 3 yesterday, doubled a 10lb all-time PR on deadlifts
  8. Ryan Valentine-Added 35lbs to his squat, doubled his best all-time bench press, and added 15lbs to his deadlift since Nationals
  9. Alyssa Orlando, doubled her best ever squat, hit a 10lb all-time bench PR wide grip
  10. Mike Damico-Added 64lbs to his total from October squatting 535lbs and deadlifting 655lbs
  11. Jess Ward- Handles over 90% for reps on a weekly basis
  12. Alex Tavares-Added 25lbs to his squat
  13. Ariel Bouvier- Has doubled 97% on a squat, doubled 5lbs under her best bench last night after a bunch of bench
  14. Alyssa Smith-Doubled a 20lb squat PR
  15. Doug Stuart-Doubled 3lbs over his best squat from Nationals
  16. Mark Doherty- Doubled his best squat for multiple sets
  17. Marilyn M-Doubled an all-time 15lb squat PR
  18. Julia Matteson- Added 30lbs to her squat
  19. Allie Ferreira- Added 10lbs to her squat for multiple singles, and hits reps on 100% deadlifts weekly


This isn’t even everyone. We haven’t even tested with many of the lifters.  These weights were hit mostly in training.  Most lifters are repping out lifts in the 90% and higher intensity ranges. There have been light days thrown in occasionally, but there has been one deload used in the group above in 3.5 months.


I have been making more decisions based off of what I see.  I use volumes to build workloads to ensure the lifters are prepared to handle these loads. I am truly using it as a monitoring tool and not allowing it to dictate weight on the bar.  We hit 1-2 hard sets and if there are more lifts scheduled we just back down to get the lifts in.


These results aren’t just due to lifting heavier.  It definitely plays a role though.  The answers to the other questions are just as important.  I will get to the next one in the next article.