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.


Self-Organization vs Hierarchical Movement System

Written by: Kevin Cann


I read an interesting article that explained how the culture of the time actually influences scientific research.  In the 80s and 90s we were in the technological era.  Computers were becoming popular in households, cell phones, mp3s, and more.


During this time movement science was focused on attempting to understand the movement capacities of a body by comparing it to a computer.  This meant that movement was controlled by a central mechanism in the brain.


Information filtered down from this control center to the rest of the body producing movement.  The development of skills here requires a large emphasis placed on cognitive processes to coordinate highly skilled movements.


This ignores the athlete’s previous experiences as well as the feedback processes of movement systems. Another issue with this hierarchical movement system is it assumes that there is a storage limit for movements. This is much like a computer running out of memory.


A problem also arises when we compare movements between novice and expert people.  These traditional theories believe the person internalizes the movement before completing it.  The problem with this is that some higher skilled movements happen too fast for this process to take place.


Skilled performers have learned to process subtle information very quickly.  Think of a batter in Major League Baseball.  They are picking up lots of subtle movements from the pitcher to predict where the ball is going and to coordinate a swing to put the bat on the ball.  You or I would not be able to accomplish this task.


These traditional theories also view error in movement as a negative thing.  This error can be eliminated through practice.  The problem with this is with the environment.  Let us look at that same hitter in baseball.


Each game is played under different environmental constraints, the sun, the wind, the temperature, the field playing surface, and the crowd are just some of the examples that the batter may need to adjust their approach with.  Athletes need a wide array of movement options to overcome these constraints.


Lots of research shows that movement variability actually increases skill level in many life and athletic tasks.  How much variability we need depends on the complexity of the task.  Hitting a baseball is much more difficult than squatting.


This means that a powerlifter does not need as much variability as a baseball player. However, there is still variability needed.  From watching the most successful lifters throughout the history of the sport we can come up with what we believe is optimal technique for the best long-term performance.


The lifter’s memories, perceptions, intentions, and preplanned strategies all play into developing this technique.  Most lifters start lifting later in life than we typically would with other sports.  At this point they most likely have well defined predictive strategies.


When we are less skilled at a sport our body needs to solve the degrees of freedom problem.  Our body has many degrees of freedom that allow for a multitude of movement options.  When we are less skilled in a movement the body will lock up some of these degrees of freedom to accomplish the task.  This is its way of gaining some control over a task in which predictive strategies are difficult due to limited experience.  As we gain more experience the body will begin to unlock these degrees of freedom.


It is our job as coaches to guide them through achieving optimal performance.  Also, I believe getting them into these positions helps to increase the lifter’s load tolerance.  If we disburse the volume amongst more joints the lifter should tolerate higher volumes. We can tolerate higher sumo deadlift volumes than we could conventional stiff legged deadlifts.  So not only are these positions required to move the most weight, but I believe they also play a role in the longevity of the lifter.


We need to help them solve this degrees of freedom problem.  I think too often as coaches we make this process about ourselves instead of the lifter.  We tell them what we want them to do and then we inundate them with feedback.  This may not be the best way to have them learn the lift.


We definitely need to communicate with them what we want them to do.  From there, we need to put them in positions to help them figure it out. This requires less talking and more watching by the coach.


Coaching cues have a place, but I feel they are overused in these situations.  I like a cue to remind a lifter what I want.  “Chest up” is used to get the upper back tight on the squat. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.  What works better is just having the lifter change their gaze to something higher up than what they were looking at before.


This is changing a constraint that tends to have a better effect on the performance outcome.  Attempting to leave the head “neutral” and keep telling them different cues is far less effective to learning.  We need movement to get into the unconscious levels. Becoming hyper focused on this one thing can bring too much conscious awareness to the lift, delaying learning. There is also solid research showing that focusing on an external thing is far more effective than internally focusing.


We definitely want to make sure the lifters are in a safe position and adhering to the rules of the sport.  I will argue all day long that neutral spine doesn’t exist and the head up position is perfectly safe, and better for performance, for a lifter not in pain.


Usually if someone is losing the upper back in the squat, we will use a variation such as pausing on the halfway up.  This variation will punish that technique breakdown.  They will not be able to pause there if they are in a poor mechanical position.  This is how we can help them self-organize to the technique that we deem to be optimal.


I also like to allow lifters to experience different foot positions, bar positions, and angles within each lift.  This helps them figure out what positions are most comfortable for them and where they can lift the most weight.  It also allows the coach to identify weaknesses to attack.


These strengths and weaknesses can change over time too.  Many times a lifter may prefer pulling sumo but sees a big jump in their conventional deadlift.  They may choose to compete in this stance at an upcoming meet, but for a future competition they find they are stronger again in the sumo position.


Every day the person in front of us is actually a different person.  All those factors that make that person who they are play into their performance.  Their perceptions, beliefs, moods, the environment, are all different each day they train.


This means that the coach needs to take these things into considerations and make any necessary changes to training day to day.  Embrace the unpredictability and uncertainty of the sport.  The human body is much like a weather system.


Weather systems are very unpredictable even a few days out.  Also, variables effect the system differently at different times.  Sometimes these variables clash and make intense thunderstorms.  Other times these variables clash, and the storm is less intense, or we don’t even get anything at all.


This is the difference between forecasting and predicting.  Weathermen are very poor at predicting weather but viewed as one of the most successful.  As coaches we need to understand this and use our eyes and our gut to make the right decisions for each lifter at the right times.


These decisions need to take appropriate load management strategies in mind.  We need the volume and mechanical stress to get stronger. How we arrange that volume can change based off of the information the coach has and his or her experience.


We need to guide them to self-organize into the positions in which we deem to be optimal.  This means watching and adjusting.  Oftentimes I will take a common variation and tweak it a bit to better suit that lifter’s learning of the task.


For example, box squats are great to teach control, but sometimes a lifter struggles to totally get it. Instead of me giving too much feedback, I will make them touch the box and pause a couple inches off of it.  We will then look at videos and discuss the difference.


The coach needs to be ok with errors in training as well.  Don’t just lower the weight until it looks better.  This changes the movement as well.  Heavier weights are different than lighter ones.  Not only due to increased gravity, but the psychological piece.


When a lifter sees heavier weights, they can become scared.  This changes the movement pattern oftentimes to be more hesitant.  Yu might see a lifter slow down on the eccentric portion of the squat.  Lifting a ton of light weights will not fix this.


Understanding all of these concepts is the art of coaching.  I have a lot to learn here as my understanding of these concepts is in its infancy.

ACWR and Progressive Overload

Written by: Kevin Cann


We all know that progressive overload is important to getting stronger.  We know we have to do more than we did before in order to get stronger. However, this is not an exact science and there are still many questions that coaches can have when trying to write programs.


Overload doesn’t just mean volumes need to increase.  We can overload a few different things.  We can overload intensity for one.  I keep track of all reps performed from 50% and higher.  I can have someone perform the exact same number of lifts as before, but we get a few more repetitions at 80% of 1RM or higher.  This can raise volumes a little bit, but it is not much usually.  Oftentimes when I do this, I use fewer total lifts, because of recovery, and volumes end up being a little bit less.


We can also overload efficiency.  This is what I tend to do in the offseason, far away from a competition.  This is also how I would treat someone with very poor technique.  We can use variations to help correct technique issues.


These variations can increase in difficulty.  For example, tempo squats at 70% for sets of 4 repetitions are much harder than comp squats at the same weight and reps.  This time under tension is progressive overload to the comp squat. From there we can pause on the halfway up for 2-4 seconds.  Obviously 4 seconds is more difficult than 2 at the same weights.  I find this variation to be harder than tempo squats for most.


From the pause on the halfway u squats we can do 1.5 squats.  This is where the lifter hits depth and goes halfway up, back down to depth, and then all of the way up.  These are very difficult and requires the lifter to spend a lot of time in the most difficult position of the lift.


Each block can use one variation and then the next block can use the exact same weights with another variation.  This helps improve technical proficiency in the lifts as long as the coach is selecting the appropriate variation for the appropriate lifter.  Blocks like this oftentimes end with PRs.


This does not mean that volume isn’t important.  We need to be sure the lifter is hitting appropriate baseline volumes for them.  There are many ways to organize a training block. I tend to prefer to organize it by rotating high, medium, and low stress days and weeks.  I learned this from Sheiko and have had good success with progress and health of my lifters.


I used to decide a number of lifts and average intensity for each lifter based upon the recommendations of Sheiko.  Now I do things a little bit differently.  I use the ACWR to organize these days and weeks.


Quick rundown on the ACWR. It is a rolling 4-week average of total tonnage in the big 3 lifts.  This is the chronic workload.  The acute workload is the current week of training.  Basically, the chronic workload is the athlete’s preparedness and the acute workload is the current fatigue in which the athlete is being asked to accumulate.


Acute workload divided by chronic workload equals the ACWR.  A ratio of 1.0 is baseline.  We never want to stray too far away from baseline either up or down for progress and health.  Everyone has a baseline that I try to maintain.


This baseline is not an exact science and it changes from person to person and even within an individual it can change over time.  This is extremely hard to maintain and why having the eye of an experienced coach is important.


Adjustments need to be made on a day to day basis.  We never want training to be too easy or too hard, for the most part.  I no longer let these numbers dictate the load on the bar. Instead I watch the lifter and decide from there.


Watching the lifter is more than just watching how the previous set looks.  It is getting to know them and understanding their lives a little bit as well as their mindset when training.  Getting stronger includes more than just building physical strength. The psychological piece is just as important.


Understanding all of these factors can help the coach put the right weight on the bar for each of their lifters.  Lifters also progress over time.  You don’t want to miss these moments and slow down their progress.  Making sure we get the right weight on the bar is important here.


If the lifter has gotten used to training volumes and the training is getting easier, we can overload intensity.  In these periods we will just push the weights but keep the number of reps the exact same.


If the lifter continuously hits numbers that are much higher than what is in their program, I will look at it and give them an inflated max.  They will then run the program with the same number of lifts and average intensities as before.


As the meet draws near we will drop variations and primarily focus on competition lifts.  This is where we will push volumes and number of lifts. A simple way to do this is by adding sets or reps to the same intensities that were previously used.


When structuring weeks of training I used to follow the guidelines laid out by Sheiko.  A medium volume week is 20-30% of the total lifts completed.  A small week is less than 20%, large week 30-40%, and extra-large week is greater than 40% of the lifts completed.


Instead of doing this now I use the ACWR.  I will have one week that is well above 1.0.  This sometimes will exceed the 1.3 that is mentioned as an upper range.  If it exceeds 1.3, I consider it an extra-large week.  1.0 is medium, less than 1.0 is small, and 1.1-1.3 is large.


If we are far out from a meet, I will structure the 4 weeks in a way that averages out to 1.0.  If I want to raise chronic workloads there may be 3 weeks over 1.0 and 1 week at .8-.9 for recovery.  This just depends on the lifter and the lifter’s schedule.


This is not just about mechanical stress.  This is why getting to know your lifters is important.  If they have a lot going on in their lives that lead to higher than normal stress levels, their tolerance for training stress will be less.


However, if things are going well, their tolerance for stress can be higher.  There is not much we can control here.  During the good times lets push it and during the stressful times lets maintain and work on some other aspects of training.  Take what is there when it is there, within reason.

Self-Organizing Technique Doesn’t Mean Lifting Technique Doesn’t Matter

Written by: Kevin Cann


A little over 3 years ago I started powerlifting.  I was fortunate enough to have one of the greatest coaches of all-time as my coach. From day 1 with Boris Sheiko technique was drilled into me as being the most important aspect of training.


I did not understand what this entailed at the time.  I was familiar with some of his go to exercises to fix certain technical breakdowns within certain positions of each lift.  On top of that I followed the recommended volumes and average intensities that he laid out.


I started coaching an intern at the place I worked and messed around with this stuff.  I was also gaining experience lifting under Sheiko and asking questions.  This was successful with this lifter, very.  After that first year, I had a few more lifters and saw equally as good success.


As I gained more lifters, and some of the others were with me for longer, I noticed some problems. Technique may look good under submaximal weights, but the breakdowns would occur under the heavier ones. Lifters got really nervous when 90% or more were put on the bar.


There were times that my belief in this system waivered quite a bit.  The problem with the system wasn’t with the system itself, it was with me. My lifters in the beginning saw good success because I followed some general rules of powerlifting and motor control.


However, in order to get continued steady progress from my lifters my understanding of these principles and how to apply them needs to get better.  I understood this and I know that for a couple of them making their way up the rankings, they need a coach that is capable of coaching someone at that level.  This is what drives me to continue to learn more and more.


I spent a lot of time analyzing the lifts and figuring out which muscles were most important at various angles.  I tried to use variations that would target those muscle groups more heavily.  Then something happened a couple of months ago.


I was beginning to notice that high bar wide stance squats were fixing a lot of pitching issues in the squat.  This made very little sense to me.  Why was this working better than an exercise such as pin squats?  Pitching in the squat is weak quads isn’t it?  Wide stance squats puts equal or less emphasis on the quads and more on the glutes.


This does not make sense. Knee extension demands are greatest at depth and hip extension demands are higher later in the squat.  Then a light bulb clicked.  I had been looking at the wrong things the entire time.


We are not just biomechanical machines, or a bag of muscles.  We are a complex system that combines many other complex systems to display strength and skill.  Strength is actually a skill.  This led me down a rabbit hole of researching some theories on motor control.


I stumbled upon Dynamic Systems Theory and Nonlinear Pedagogy.  I began reading some studies on this stuff and it was just making so much sense.  I then began reading the Sheiko book.  In this book he mentions this motor control theory.


This explained why high bar wide stance squats was fixing the pitching problems in the squat.  It also explained why technique was breaking down at greater than 90% of 1RM for my lifters.  The high bar wide stance squats force the lifter to stay upright.


If the lifter pitches even a little bit, they will have to quickly get the hips back under the bar or they will fall over.  Confidence affects technique.  If a lifter is scared of weights, they will see breakdowns at those heavier weights.


Sheiko coaches the likes of Alexi Nikulin in Russia.  This 82.5kg lifter passed out on a second squat attempt of 764lbs (raw with knee sleeves).  He broke both wrists due to the bar falling off of his back.  He came out and smoked it on his 3rd.  This is a different mentality from the lifters I coach.


What the DST says is that the lifter is preplanning motor control strategies based off of past experiences, interactions with the environment, and perceptions and beliefs about the lift.  Once the lift starts the brain is constantly analyzing sensory feedback and makes the appropriate adjustments.


As a coach we need to take all of these aspects into consideration.  We also need to take general strength principles into consideration. We still need adequate volumes and average intensities to get stronger.


We need BOTH for maximal results.  You can get very good results from just touching upon a few pieces.  I saw this in the beginning.  However, for long term continued success I believe the coach needs a very high understanding of how to apply both.  This is what separates Sheiko from everyone else.


Coaches have been throwing around the term “self-organizing” to explain how everyone’s technique will be different.  This is true it will.  Every rep from the same person will also be different.  However, we know that certain positions are more optimal to push more weights.


The differences in technique comes from things such as stance width and toe flail.  The coach should be putting the lifter in the best position for them to obtain these more optimal positions.


Our job as coaches is to create an environment that guides the lifter towards that optimal technique while also applying general strength principles.  This takes extremely high-level coaching.  I have much to learn to get to this level.


Some things that I have learned recently.  For one, everyone learns differently.  I have go to exercises to fix technical issues in each of the lifts.  They tend to work at varying levels for each person. I watch each person lift and I adjust the variation in a way that fits that person better and allows them a greater learning experience.


Skill development is not linear.  I have been picking variations and using weekly linear progressions to push them throughout a block.  This is not appropriate.  This works, but it can be better.  Sheiko did not use weekly linear progressions with me and it only started making sense to me recently.


I am not being so rigid to following the program.  Instead I write the program as a blueprint to guide my decisions.  I have built in monitoring tools to help this decision-making process.  However, I will adapt daily to the lifter.


For example, yesterday Doug had triples at 80% which is 335lbs.  He took the first set and said the weight feels very heavy.  However, it was very fast.  We scratched the plan.  We put 30 more pounds on the bar and after a triple with it we did an AMRAP where he got 7 reps.


A situation like this gets his confidence back on the squats and teaches him to not let his feelings dictate training and to trust his strength.  If I don’t do this, who knows where that negative thought pattern on squats will stop.


Everything has a time and place.  It is learning where and when to use it.  This is the art of coaching and it only comes with an understanding of both general strength principles as well as the principles of motor control and blends it with the experience of a well know ledged coach.  This takes time, but we will get there.

I Feel Like I Am Hitting My Stride as A Coach

Written by: Kevin Cann


I write a lot about the things I need to improve upon as a coach.  I feel there is always more to learn and the second that I quit trying to learn more is the second I stop improving as a coach.


With that said, I was writing programs this week and a thought had hit me.  These look vastly different than they used to.  When I first started, I was fortunate enough to have one of the greatest powerlifting coaches in the history of the sport as my coach.


I mimicked his programs in the beginning.  I saw how it was setup and I just followed along with the format.  For the first year, I only coached one lifter.  This lifter was actually an intern that I kind of forced to do it.


I learned a lot from going through the process and coaching another person through it.  After the first year I felt I was ready to take on a few more lifters.  My group grew a little.  I had about 7 lifters and this continued to expand my abilities a bit.


I learned what worked for one person may not work for another.  I also began to learn the things that I did not know.  I tried to read everything I could to improve upon these areas, but the information on the internet is not exactly the best.  There is some decent stuff out there, but it is pretty vague and did not really help me out too much.  I needed more.


Year 3 saw my group grow exponentially.  I went from 7 lifters to 37 lifters.  It also saw the start of the podcast, Boston’s Strongcast.  My network of coaches also began to grow.  The combination of all 3 of these factors has really sped up my learning process.


Taking this many people through the process, I realized the flaws in the way I was doing things.  I was able to poll quite a few successful coaches on these issues to see how they handle them, and I began experimenting with some different ideas.


I realized that the majority of my lifters responded much better to higher efforts in training, but volume still need to be adequate enough.  The fear of training harder is the risk of increased injury risk.


When I first started coaching powerlifters, I was deep into the biomechanical approach to things. This came with a lot of mobility drills and underloading.  I began to learn more and more about pain science.


Eventually, Mike Amato introduced me to the work of Tim Gabbett and the Acute Chronic Work Ratio (ACWR).  I now had a monitoring tool that would allow me to increase efforts in training while monitoring loads to keep the lifters as pain free as possible.


I looked through the literature to better understand what muscles and when they are most important for all of the lifts.  I then asked a few successful coaches a ton of questions.  From there I found the similarities and thought of ways to put them into my own system.


I messed around with a few things to see how they worked.  Like most things, some things worked, and some things did not.  I was encouraged to keep experimenting so that is what I continued to do.


In the beginning my programs were very Sheiko-esque.  We did squats and bench on days 1 and 3 and deadlifts and bench on days 2 and 4 (sometimes no bench on day 4).  We very rarely went over 85% and all of the variations we performed were in our competition stances and grips.


I have always tracked number of lifts, total tonnage, average relative intensity, and what percent of volume comes from the competition lifts themselves.  I have since added the ACWR to my analysis as well as monitoring last set RPE and the lifter’s mood upon the start of training.


I used to just tell the lifter to run the numbers.  Don’t deviate from the plan at all.  This was actually pretty good at the time and played into my experience level as a coach. I knew the average relative intensities were well within the range.  I lacked the experience to tell a lifter to go up or down at the time.  It also allowed me to see how the program worked without any outside influences like myself changing intensities.


The variations being in the competition stances and grips also made it easier for me to choose exercises. I analyzed where the lift was breaking down and selected the appropriate variation from there.  Again, this fit well into my abilities as a coach.


Now, we squat and bench on day 1, squat and deadlift on day 2, squat and bench on day 3, and bench and deadlift on day 4.  We frequently go over 90%.  The variations I use most tend to change foot placement on the squats and deadlifts and grip on the bench press.


The variations we keep in until they are no longer a weakness to the lifter.  If their sumo deadlift is weak compared to their conventional, we will keep pulling sumo until that gap closes.  This may include some of those Sheiko variations I learned. We may do high bar wide stance pause on the halfway up squats if their technique with a high bar wide stance squats shows this variation will improve it.


I used to use multiple variations in a given block.  Now I stick with one and we keep it in as long as I feel there is benefit coming from it. The variations also allow us to keep effort high while oftentimes controlling loads.


One of the important aspects of a Sheiko program is load variability.  I still believe this is a very important aspect.  We need enough high stress, medium stress, and low stress days to allow the athlete to get stronger as well as to minimize the risk of injury.


Variations allow us to keep effort high while oftentimes controlling loads.  A high bar wide stance pause squat is much harder than a competition squat.  4 reps at 70%is much harder than 70%.  This is why I monitor LSRPE.  I want the effort to be between an RPE 7 and 9.


This effort can fluctuate throughout the week.  If we have a really hard training session on one day, I like the other day to be a little less strenuous (hence the RPE 7-9 range).  This makes sure technique stays strong and keeps the lifter from psychologically burning out.


I give the lifters some freedom to add or subtract weights.  Based off the rep ranges in training they have intensity intervals. These intervals give them caps on how heavy they can go and how much they can lower weight.  We don’t want them going up too much or down too low as both can negatively affect the ACWR.  The only way they can take more or less weight is if I say so.


It is just cool to be able to see the transformation from mimicking my coach to actually developing my own system. I have been coaching since 2005, but only involved in powerlifting since 2015.  This has been the result of 3 plus years of hard work and trial and error.


For other coaches out there, just work hard and focus on delivering good results.  Stop worrying about what other coaches and lifters are going to say.  Gain experience and lean on those more experienced for help.