Individual Differences, American Culture and Heavy Singles

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

American culture is very focused on the individual when we compare it to other countries.  This needs to be taken into consideration by the coach.  Our cultural beliefs are an important aspect of our physiological strength.

 

Communist countries have a greater group mentality.  Each individual is part of a greater whole.  In these cultures each individual is used to doing what they are told as well.  This is definitely not the case in America.

 

I have had beginner lifters tell me as their coach, what they need to get stronger, or what works and doesn’t work for them.  The beginner does not have the knowledge or experience to know these things.  A Russian lifter is not saying that to his or her coach.  This is a major cultural difference.

 

I am not saying that we do not need to address each individual.  In fact, I am saying the opposite.  In America, due to our culture, we need to address individual differences.  This is especially true for a sport like powerlifting.

 

Powerlifting draws from everyone.  Past athletes, non-athletes, fitness enthusiasts, Crossfitters, young, and old.  Each individual has their own journey into this sport.  This isn’t Russia where kids are getting into it at 8 years old.

 

This can be a very difficult challenge for a coach.  It requires time getting to know an individual lifter.  The coach needs to understand their strengths and weaknesses in the gym, but also know who they are outside of the gym as this will affect their performance and recovery in a number of ways.

 

Another major piece of American culture is social media.  Love it or hate it, it plays a big role.  The whole “Do it for the Gram” is a thing.  No matter how many times that coaches tell their lifters it doesn’t matter, it absolutely does.  You can’t fight it.  No one is getting excited for a 4×4 at 70% of 1RM, but big lifts get passed around.

 

I started coaching using a Russian system.  Sheiko was my coach and it was all that I knew.  It worked well until it didn’t.  I saw continued progress working directly with him so maybe my ability to coach this system was lacking.

 

Not only did I need to take into account the lifters’ backgrounds, but also mine as a coach.  Both matter when we are attempting to create our own culture.  I do not have a ton of experience with powerlifting.  I have been coaching the sport for only 5 years.  However, I got a lot of experience competing in sports at a high level.

 

I had been competing in sports my whole life.  These experiences would help shape the culture of PPS.  I decided to view powerlifting more like a sport and draw my own conclusions on how to prepare for that sport.  At the same time, we needed to build a culture on just competing.

 

Most lifters that I coach do not have a strong competitive background.  If we can learn to just compete, each lifter will put their best effort on that platform.  There is nothing that will teach a lifter to compete more than heavy singles.  Heavy singles create the greatest psychological response in training.  A psychological response that mimics that same psychological response that they will encounter at a competition.

 

Not only that, singles are the sport.  If I want a lifter to be best prepared for the sport, I want them doing as many singles as they can.  This is where individualization needs to come in.  Some lifters are more capable of recovery from heavy singles than others.

 

I have heard some lifters say that heavy singles do not work for them.  This makes no sense to me.  Singles are the sport; you should probably practice it.  However, it may create such a psychological response that recovery becomes difficult.  This is where coaching comes into play.

 

Perhaps in the beginning the lifter needs to be coddled a bit with the singles.  Each max effort day does not need to be a true max.  Find a weight the lifter is comfortable with, and increase it by as little as 5lbs, we just want to create a psychological response.

 

This is often a hard, but doable weight.  In the beginning, this does not even have to be programmed each week.  We can go every other week with max effort singles.  Even longer if it becomes necessary.  I have not coached someone that is not ok with every other week of max effort lifts.

 

On the other end of the spectrum are the psychos.  These lifters just want to max out all of the time.  They need to be protected from themselves.  These lifters will also only get max effort lifts every other week.  This is to make sure we are taking enough psychological and physical breaks from heavier weight to keep the lifter healthy and progress moving forward in the long term.

 

Most people will fit somewhere in the middle.  I tell my lifters to leave 5-10lbs on the bar for the following week.  If someone is a little more conservative, they are able to get more consecutive weeks of max effort lifts.  If they are more aggressive, or progress stalls on a movement, and a true max is reached, the following week we either change the exercise or just hit some sets and reps.

 

The lighter dynamic work/rep work later in the week helps me see how well they are recovering.  These days are very similar to what our days looked like when we ran a Sheiko style of training.  I have years’ worth of data on RPE of various exercise and set and rep schemes.

 

If a lifter is putting an RPE at 8 or higher on these days, then recovery is certainly maxed out.  Higher and they are not recovering well.  Lower RPEs tell me that we can keep going.  When a higher RPE is scored on these days I have options.

 

I often will leave the training the exact same to see if it improves or if it is getting worse.  If it improves, we can run the same training day again, or add a little weight or volume.  99% of the time I will leave it the same.  Let them fully recover and hit the next wave hard.

 

If I see that recovery is a continuous issue, I will cut the volume on the later days’ lifts in half.  We will gradually increase volume from here as the RPEs dictate.  It is rare that I see the max effort performance drop significantly due to fatigue.

 

One interesting thing that I have seen from doing it this way is that we have far fewer nagging issues popping up, with much more progress.  +This is the best use of RPE in my opinion.  Perceived effort tells us a lot about the lifter and their needs.

 

Over time, I want to see an increase in max effort days.  This is not always possible.  Outside life really gets in the way sometimes.  However, if I have that viewpoint to make my decisions, then it helps me to make better ones.

 

I find myself pulling back on volume more than increasing it.  With that said, I will increase it at times.  On the later days we may do a 10×2 at 70% of 1RM, or a 5×6 at the same intensity.  It all depends on where we are, and what that lifter needs at that given time.

 

Sheiko would always say that load variability was very important.  The changing of exercises on max effort days changes absolute loads, and on the other days, we move things around quite frequently.  This keeps training interesting and forces the lifter to pay attention in different ways.

 

Training is a dynamic process that is affected by literally everything.  The coach needs to understand this dynamic process.  Part of understanding it is understanding we can’t control a lot of it, and there is a lot of uncertainty.

 

Each coach needs to have their own set of rules that allows them to navigate this process in the best possible way for their lifters.  I like singles because they are the sport and they embrace that Instagram culture.

 

I also understand that individual differences exist.  I have a means of navigating the process for each individual.  We combine this all together to form the culture of PPS.

How We Differ from Westside: In Fact We are Quite Different

 

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I got this idea for an article in a conversation with a lifter that trains out of Westside.  I think people confuse what we do with Westside because we use variation and take heavy singles.  Beyond that, there are not a ton of similarities.

 

With that said, I love Westside and what they do.  There are definitely some influences from them with the way that I do things.  I think the similarities that Westside and PPS have in the programs comes from my love and appreciation for the Bulgarian and Greek weightlifting systems as well as my time lifting with Sheiko, a Russian coach.

 

Louie has these same fascinations with the Russians and the Bulgarians.  What I really appreciate about Louie is his willingness to try things and learn from mistakes.  He has truly used his gym as a living lab for over 40 years.

 

Louie did not come up with the “conjugate” system.  In fact, he actually uses the term incorrectly when we look at the Verkoshansky texts.  The Conjugate Sequential System is block periodization.  What Louie uses is concurrent or complex-parallel periodization.

 

Louie instead uses the term conjugate to be synonymous with concurrent, meaning training multiple skills at once.  Again, he did not invent this style of training, he just found a way to practically apply it at a high level.  Just because someone is doing a max effort lift, it is not Westside.

 

The max effort method is discussed in “Supertraining.”  Also, there is a lot of research showing that to increase absolute strength singles at or near maximal are superior than reps.  The SAID principle states that the body will adapt to the demands placed upon it.  If you want to get better at singles, you need to practice singles.

 

Sheiko was not a big proponent of singles and had unparalleled success as a coach.  Sheiko was a proponent for technique first.  Verkoshansky’s Principle of Dynamic Organization states that the body is always looking for a more efficient way to execute a movement.  This supplies the main focus of Sheiko’s coaching style.

 

When we take heavy singles, technique breaks down.  Sheiko does not want to see that.  He described the difference between him and Westside as his focus being on technique first and Westside on strength first.  Better way to think of it is Louie uses the max effort method as the main piece to get stronger and Sheiko uses the Principle of Dynamic Organization.

 

This then comes down to the coach and how they view error.  Is error good or bad?  I coach using a Dynamic Systems Theory approach.  I view error as being a tool to teach the lifter.  Error also allows the coach to assess strengths and weaknesses.

 

I prefer to place the lifter in a position that will punish the technical inefficiency that I see, and we perform this lift with near max or max weights.  The inability to complete the task gives the lifter and the coach feedback on what needs to be improved.

 

In my opinion this is kind of a balance between Sheiko and Louie.  My main focus is on the skill acquisition of the sport.  This includes increasing the abilities of the lifter to produce maximal force while increasing technical efficiency of the lifts.

 

The Principle of Dynamic Organization states that the coach should give the athlete problems to solve and that the solution to those problems is movement.  This is exactly what a Dynamics System Theory/Constraints-Led Approach does.

 

In powerlifting, the coach changes stance width, bar position, grip width, or uses bands, chains, pins, boxes, pauses, and tempos.  This gives the lifter a problem to solve.  They are still performing the lifts within the rules of the sport under these constraints.  The goal is to build a large skill set within the sport.  Variation is key for this.  It may also be important for reducing injury risk, jury is still out.

 

Louie uses specialty bars here.  We primarily use a straight bar.  Louie is a big proponent of the box squat.  His lifters use a wide stance and sit back on the box so that the shins are vertical or even in a position where the knees are behind the ankles.  The hip flexors are relaxed, and the lifter thinks of performing a leg curl to stand up from the box.

 

I do not have my lifters sit on the box.  The box is an external cue to get the lifter to sit back, it lets them know when they are at depth, they pause on the box, and they explode up after the pause.  This is basically a glorified pause squat.  The box does cue them to get less forward knee travel and trains a different position where the low back can be targeted with the hips.

 

The static to dynamic part of the movement builds explosive strength.  I could not adequately coach a Westside style box squat as the lifters would end up rocking off of the box every time.  I thought about what I wanted out of the exercise and made the adjustments.  We have some big squats, so it works.

 

The majority of the volume in a Westside program comes from the GPP work.  Ours comes from the variations of the main lifts.  We do not have comp lifts until we have a comp coming up.  A medium stance low bar squat is the comp squat of over 80% of lifters.  So how we break up variations and comp lifts is very different from the norm.  Do we use more comp lifts?  I don’t know because we do not know where we will be strongest at the time of the meet.

 

Perhaps the lifter has a big improvement in conventional and decides to pull with that style instead of sumo.  Perhaps wider stance squats feel better, so they move their feet out a bit and compete there.  Strengths and weaknesses are always changing.  This is a key component of a Dynamic Systems Theory approach.

 

We actually perform backdown work after the max effort lift.  We will take a percentage of the max effort lift and perform a few sets working on the technique breakdown that we saw on the heavy single.

 

As most are aware, I am not a huge fan of accessory work.  I do not think it increases 1RM, and if it does somehow indirectly, it is so minimal.  Doesn’t mean that it does not have a place.  It can help build up weak areas and improve recovery by increasing work capacity.  However, I believe it is best to target the weak areas with appropriate variations and angles within the main lifts.

 

We do not rotate the max effort lifts weekly.  Bonderchuk discussed the importance of variability, and not having the variation in the program long enough to get a training effect from it.  I keep an exercise in for 3 weeks.

 

If a lifter hits a true max on one of the weeks, we just do sets and reps the following week to really hone in on technical mastery so that we can add 5lbs the following week.  I may decide to leave a variation in there, but just make subtle changes to it every 3 weeks.

 

For example, Kerry is only hitting 240lbs on an SSB low box squat.  Her best comp squat is 305lbs at 52kg bodyweight.  We will keep this variation in for a longer period.  I will just add chains to it, maybe bands, change the box to pins, and even remove the box, no box with bands or chains.  We will build up this lift because it is highlighting a weakness.

 

Alyssa performed sumo deadlifts for 40 of the 52 weeks last year because of how large of a discrepancy there was.  She saw incredible progress on her conventional deadlift in competitions from doing this.  80% of the year we focused on building up a stance she is weaker in and does not compete in.

 

We perform max effort squats and max effort deadlifts in the same week.  The deadlifts rotate weekly between max effort work and rep/dynamic effort work.  Westside uses an either or approach.  The lifters at Westside are lifting far greater absolute loads and that may be required to allow them to recover.

 

We bench before our deadlifts.  This is something I did with Sheiko.  Also, Vince Anello was a big proponent of doing something to tire you out a little before you pull.  He is one of the greatest deadlifters of all time so I will listen to him.

 

We do not do dynamic effort work like Westside does.  Sometimes we do, but it is pretty rare.  What I did steal from Westside was the set and rep schemes.  Instead of doing 5 sets of 4 at 70%, we will do 10 sets of 2 at 70%.  Total volume is the same, but we get more first reps, better looking technique for all 20 reps, and faster execution for an increase in rate of force development.

 

We need sport specific speed.  Lighter loads may be more appropriate for team and field sport athletes to increase power.  Not sure they are necessary for powerlifting.  Even Louie seems to use enough accommodating resistance to be sure the top weight is 70% to 80% of 1RM.

 

I also like to use time limits on the sessions like Westside does.  At a meet you do not take an attempt when you want.  You go when you are told.  Also, fatigue makes technique more difficult.  It raises the stakes and the necessary skill level.  A newer lifter gets more time between sets.  As they get better, we can decrease that time between sets.  This increases the skill level of the lifter.

 

Sometimes I still use 70% for 5 sets of 4.  Sheiko taught me that load variability is important.  So our later week training sessions may be rep work that looks very similar to the way our programs looked when we were doing a more Sheiko-like format.  It also may not look like that.

 

Our frequency is lower than it was when we were running a more Sheiko-like program, but higher than a Westside program.  We squat 2 times per week, bench 2 times per week, and deadlift 1 to 2 times, per week (2nd deadlift session is very light).

 

On a Sheiko program we would squat 2 to 3 times, bench 3 to 4 times, and deadlift 1 to 2 times.  We utilize similar frequency as Westside, but a little more.  We split up the max effort squats on its own day and bench on its own day, but we do rep/dynamic bench work before max effort or rep/dynamic deadlifts.  Day 4 is usually rep/dynamic squats and light deadlifts.

 

What PPS does is not Westside.  I love Westside, but I am not Louie and my lifters are not his lifters.  What we do is unique to us and our journey of figuring this shit out.  We are not a copy of someone else.  We do not follow a simple structure laid out by anyone else.  We have our own structure.

 

We are PPS, not anyone else.  We want to be PPS and no one else.

Few Words on Volume

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I was reading a thread that was about me on the internet yesterday and this topic was mentioned. Surprisingly, the thread was overwhelmingly positive in regard to the information about the way in which PPS does things.  This was a nice change of pace from the usual negativity.

 

One of things mentioned was that it seems that we are low volume and high intensity.  This is not necessarily wrong, but I think it is a good topic to discuss.  I think there is a lot of misinformation out there on the importance of volume as well.

 

First off how are we defining volume?  There are certain definitions of volume out there that I believe are quite useless.  One of those is total tonnage.  I do not feel that the total tonnage lifted in training tells us anything about the training session itself.

 

I view training from a behavioral learning/motor control lens.  I feel this includes all parts of the human including both psychological and physical.  If we just view training as a program of sets and reps, we can miss the piece about the human going through it.  The unpredictability of training also decreases the emphasis that should be placed on the program at the expense of the person in front of the coach.

 

There is a certain amount of practice required to develop a skill.  Someone cannot just squat one time per month and win a world championship.  I care about number of lifts in training for this reason.  But what lifts do I care about?

 

Do I care about how many reps are taken with the empty bar?  I want them to warmup with the empty bar, but I am not including this in the tracked volume of the session.  With the research out there, it seems as if sets completed from RPE 6 to RPE 10 have benefits towards increasing strength.

 

I include all lifts within these ranges as the total number of lifts per session, per week, per month, and so on.  In a max effort session, the lifter usually gets around 2 to 4 repetitions above 90% of 1RM.  They are warming up with singles and the singles previous to these attempts are most likely below the RPE 6 threshold.  Even if it was not, it is not really volume that I care about on this given day.  This is not an exact science, so an extra rep is not going to be a big deal if I miss it.

 

The goal of max effort is to build absolute strength.  I care about the singles at or near failure here.  This context redefines volume for me on this given day. I only want to count the reps that are useful to the goal that we are trying to achieve in the gym.

 

If a lifter hits a true RPE 10 on week 1, week 2 we will use a percentage of that number for a sets and reps.  This may look like:

 

Wide Stance Box Squat, 80% of last week, 1 set of 4-5 reps

 

I choose 80% because it is the average intensity that the majority of the repetitions were performed in the Soviet System.  Also, from the times we ran a more linear program, most lifters could execute 80% of 1RM for 4-5 reps.  This just so happens to be the same number of repetitions the lifter executed at higher intensities the week prior.  On max effort day we get 2-4 reps at the same RPEs.

 

The closer you are to RPE 6, the more volume you need.  The closer you are to an RPE 10, the less volume you need.  This is a general rule that I tend to follow.  Both days usually have some kind of backdown work.

 

I will say in many cases coaches just throw the kitchen sink at the lifter.  The lowest volume should be utilized to get results.  This is true on any program.  Throwing insanely high volumes at a lifter will ensure a stimulus is being achieved and will lead to short term results.  This will not work in the long term.

 

This backdown work that we perform is usually between 65% of 1RM and 80% of 1RM.  This may be the same variation we maxed out on or a different one that we are working on the technical breakdowns seen in the max work.  The percentage is taken from the max work of that day.

 

The number of lifts for backdowns is usually between 8 and 15, with some wiggle room to go higher depending on the variation used and the person.  We are getting between 10 and 20 reps of work between an RPE 7 and RPE 10.  If your program reads 5 sets of 4 reps at RPE 7, we have done similar volumes.

 

However, we get singles between RPE 9.5 and RPE 10.  Our specificity is higher.  Out of those 20 reps we are getting 2 to 4 reps between an RPE 8.5 and RPE 10.  Due to our intensity, we have a larger recovery cost.  This recovery is actually more psychological than physical.

 

Due to this greater recovery cost our frequency is limited to 1-2 times per week.  A program performing a 5×4 at RPE 7 will not have a huge recovery cost.  These programs allow the lifters to utilize a higher frequency if they so choose.

 

Many DUP programs may have 3 days where all of the lifts are performed.  It would be very difficult to do this with max singles thrown in there.  The fact that the RPEs are lower, the frequency and the volume can increase to drive results.

 

Lifters have limited time in the gym.  I prefer max singles due to the efficiency of training sessions.  When I first started coaching, training sessions would take 2-3 hours to complete.  Now they are completed in 1-1.5 hours and we are much stronger now than we were then.  This allows more time to get stuff done outside of the gym and more recovery time.

 

We can’t just max out every day in the gym.  Although this is literally what I have been doing for the last few months.  I know this is not the best program to be doing, but I wanted to, and I don’t care what is best.  I have been having a lot of fun training and looking forward to sessions.

 

My progress stalled pretty heavily and even went backwards some, but I still do not care.  I can’t emphasize enough that I am having fun training and right now, that is all that I want.  I am not weaker from training.  I am also not a good lifter.  I am not winning a world championship anytime soon (my goal is just to outlive everyone else to win).  If I stay consistent and keep training, I will adapt and get stronger no matter what I do.

 

That brings me to my next topic here, it takes time to adapt to a change in stimulus.  If you are coming from a high volume program to a conjugate style training program, you will see a dip in performance in the beginning. Your workload is dropping, this is common.  Also, your psychological pieces are not used to being challenged as frequently as they will be with a higher intense program.

 

I have had many lifters freak out the second a max effort lift is under their all-time best.  The process is not linear.  We are just looking to beat old PRs on variations by 5lbs in each wave.  Lifters are instructed to leave 5 to 10lbs on the bar each week.  On the 3rd week of a wave they can go full send.  In a perfect world we are really only maxing out 1 time per month.  However, sometimes what you think will be a good weight gets heavy fast.  When this happens the following week is sets and reps without max effort anyways, so at most lifters are truly maxing 2 times per month.  The other days there is 5-10lbs left for the following week.  The deadlift is rotated between max effort and dynamic effort/rep work every other week.

 

Since we cannot max out every day (do as I say not as I do), we need to use lighter days.  On these lighter days I look for an RPE 7 intensity, but we get as many as 15 sets of both squats and deadlifts done on the same day (30 sets total), and usually as low as 20 sets.  In these cases the reps per set for squats would be 2 and deadlifts 1 to 2.

 

If we use rep work the reps for squats will be between 20 to 30 and the reps for deadlifts between 10 and 20.  This is done on day 4 in the program.  We do dynamic bench work/rep work before pulls on day 3.  On these days bench press volume is between 25 and 35 reps.

 

These numbers are only including the working weight sets.  I used to include all warmups in my total number of lifts.  When we ran a more Sheiko style of programming, average number of lifts for a lifter would be between 150 and 200 lifts per week.  This included all warmups.

 

Now the average is between 100 and 130 lifts, not including warmups.  If we included warmups, our total number of lifts would be near the lower end of how we did it before.  Our average intensity is higher now, so volume needs to be a little lower.  With that said, it is not as high as you would think since only 7-10% of the total number of lifts are above 90% of 1RM.  The majority of our work is between 65% to 80% of 1RM.  This lowers the average quite a bit.

 

The problem with the lower intensity is that it requires more work, which requires more time.  This is a luxury many lifters do not have.  It also fails to train the psychological pieces of the sport.  I would argue the psychological may be more important than the physical.

Conjugate Doesn’t Work for Raw?

 

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

Ever since I became involved in powerlifting about 5 years ago, this has been the theme, “Conjugate does not work for raw lifting.”  I must admit, I bought into it for a period of time, although my reasons may have been different from the internet’s.

 

My biggest issue was with technique.  Technique will break down at the higher intensities.  This is absolutely true.  Working with Sheiko, I was mimicking what he did in making every repetition in training look the same.

 

My other argument was more against heavy bands and chains.  We used accommodating resistance, but we used a much smaller amount than most conjugate training programs.  This was due to the changing of the strength curve.

 

The more accommodating resistance, the lower the weight at the difficult parts of the lift and the higher the weight during the more biomechanically efficient parts of the lift.  I would argue that a lifter is only as strong as they are in their weakest positions.  This is also true.  However, heavy accommodating resistance has a place for CAT (compensatory acceleration training) and it helps strengthen certain technical inefficiencies.

 

The internet will tell you that conjugate is not specific enough.  This has really never made much sense to me.  Aren’t heavy singles the actual sport?  To my knowledge it was the only powerlifting program that was actually very specific to the sport.  The amount of variation in a Sheiko program was very similar to a Westside program, so the variability of training was something that I was accustomed to.

 

5 years ago was the start of the rise of popularity for DUP (daily undulating periodization).  DUP was well researched, and Dr. Mike Zourdos made it much more accessible for powerlifters.  Now every powerlifter could go on IG and yell their training was better because of #science.

 

Over the years I have found my way to a conjugate training system.  I realized that following a Sheiko program that we were not lifting heavy enough and lifters were getting nervous to attempt heavier weights.

 

A Sheiko program did not allow the lifters to explore positions either.  All variations were done in comp stance and with comp grip.  This makes sense for the Russians that had all those years of GPP work before being coached by Sheiko.

 

In America, many lifters do not have that same base.  They start the sport later in life and come with a lot of weaknesses and lower skill levels within the lifts.  Variability is important to increase that skill level while simultaneously bringing up weaker areas.

 

Raw lifting is a relatively new thing.  I believe the first IPF raw world championships was in 2013.  The first raw nationals was just a couple years prior to that.  This leads to a lot of inexperience in the sport.

 

It also seems to attract the younger demographics that grew up with technology.  A DUP program is easy to make on an Excel spreadsheet and really does not require a whole lot of coaching.  In fact, I would argue that this is writing programs and not coaching at all.

 

So what is a conjugate program?  A conjugate program is a method of training where multiple methods are trained at the same time.  DUP, has some similarities here.  A DUP program may have a hypertrophy day, strength day, and power day.  Each week the program may call for adding a set, or increasing weight, so there are some linear components to it as well.

 

A conjugate program will look to build absolute strength (max effort method), rate of force development (dynamic effort method), technical efficiency (dynamic effort method/repetition effort method), and mental toughness (max effort method).

 

At the end of the day, powerlifting is about displaying absolute strength.  There is no better way to increase maximal strength than taking heavy singles.  Singles over 90% increase motor unit recruitment better than lighter weights, and it develops the ability to strain under heavy weights.

 

Sets of greater than one rep do not do that.  One, the lifter, will conserve as much energy as needed to finish the set.  This is even true for doubles and triples.  This also trains strength endurance and not absolute strength.  Singles also build mental toughness to handle heavier weights.

 

Technique does break down at these heavier weights.  When I first started, I viewed this as a negative.  However, now I view it as a positive.  Error teaches us.  The max effort singles allow us to easily analyze the lifter and build a program around attacking weaknesses.

 

We can alter the angles of the max effort lifts to punish technical inefficiency and strengthen any lagging areas.  It seems like everyone needs stronger hips, hamstrings, and low back.  This is why the majority of lifters lean towards lifting in a raised heel.  It allows them to stay more upright and use more quads.  A very simple fix to this, is we now do the majority of our training in flats.

 

A lifter cannot have as much of a positive shin angle in flats as compared to a raised heel.  This decreases the ability to use more quads and forces the lifter to use a bit more hips and hamstrings.  On top of that we do a lot more wider stance squat work.  This emphasizes those areas even more.  Increasing toe flail can limit the forward travel of the knee as well.

 

This allows the lifter to build technical efficiency under maximal loads, where it actually matters in this sport.  These positions can also target weaknesses in a sport specific manner.  If a wide stance squat in flats is 10% lower for a 1RM than a comp stance in heels, we got a weakness to work on.  We can build up those angles, and when we do that, we will see an increase in the competition lift itself.  Sometimes the lifter will prefer the new positions.  Now, our strengths and weaknesses have shifted, and the process continues.

 

We cannot just do heavy singles every day in the gym.  This is for recovery for one.  Psychological burnout can become high if we just perform heavy singles.  I also think there are some positives to repeated practice.

 

Singles do not give the lifter a lot of practice.  This is where the dynamic effort and repetition effort methods come into play.  The coach can use lighter weights and higher volumes to get the lifter more practice and to continue to work on weaknesses.

 

Weaknesses can be technical, mental, and physical.  If a lifter is slow, work on getting faster, if a lifter has poor technique maybe slowing them down and teaching control is more appropriate than speeding them up.  We can always speed them up later on, when the control is there.  This is a long term process.  The coach can choose the angles of the lift to also work on weaknesses.  If the lifter needs more hips and hamstrings, the box squat is good here.

 

How is this not for raw lifters?  A DUP program may have a block of 8/6/4 reps and then a block of 5/3/1 reps. Sometimes singles are included but done at an RPE 8. A rep at that intensity is not maximal effort and will not build absolute strength.

 

It may allow the lifter to maintain strength while they wait for the program to get more specific.  The closer to a single that the lifter gets, the more specific.  Let us look at the efficiency of each program.

 

A conjugate program takes no more than an hour to hour and a half to complete.  Performing multiple higher rep sets of all 3 lifts each day, takes far longer.  My lifters have jobs and lives outside of the gym.  The less time they spend in the gym the more time they can recover and manage their lives outside of the gym.

 

This is not to rip on those that use a DUP program.  If you enjoy doing that, by all means keep doing it.  It also works for a lot of lifters out there.  I will just argue that it is not the best.  Long term training requires a continual analysis of weaknesses and a program that targets those weaknesses.

Why Conjugate is Superior to Other Programs

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

In the USAPL circle of powerlifting it seems that daily undulating periodization (DUP) is what the majority leans towards for their training with some linear and block periodization sprinkled in.  It seems as if speaking the term “conjugate” aloud will result in some punishment.

 

This is contradictory to the people that I follow outside of the USAPL.  It seems that conjugate is a popular training style.  I find this very interesting as it is all powerlifting.  I am not sure why one group doesn’t utilize it at all, and another group seems to utilize it more.

 

In my previous article I broke down the history of periodization and made arguments against the need for a periodized strength program.  If you have not read that one yet I encourage you to do that first.

 

This is not to say that the coach should not have a plan.  The coach needs to have a plan that is flexible and adaptable to the ever changing needs of the individual.  The plan should also be one that enhances the skills necessary for the sport.

 

Many programs begin with a hypertrophy block.  The reps are usually between 6 and 12 during this block and 65% to 85% of 1RM, roughly.  Interestingly enough the research shows similar muscle growth between higher load and lower load exercises as long as the effort is at or near max.

 

This means that increased workloads to increase muscle size are most likely unnecessary as heavier weights for less reps build muscle size about as well.  This also assumes that increased muscle size increases strength potential of a muscle.  There is nothing that suggests that this is true.

 

Hypertrophy may just be a byproduct of training.  Even if higher rep sets with lower loads built hypertrophy better does it matter?  The difference in muscle size would be very small and more may not be better.  This may be especially true if the other group is lifting at or near 1RM.  The specificity of that training will trump the miniscule difference in muscle size potentially leading to greater gains in strength.

 

The strength increases between periodized and non-periodized training in the literature can oftentimes be attributed to that same specificity.  The periodized groups end up training closer to 1RM than the non-periodized groups.

 

There was a study titled “Reduced Volume ‘Daily Max’ Training Compared to Higher Volume Periodized Training in Powerlifters Preparing for a Competition-A Pilot Study” that showed that hitting a daily max in the lifts around an RPE 9.5 was as effective in training beginner to intermediate powerlifters in a 10 week training program as a standard periodized program.

 

This was interesting to me because the program with singles is what it is in a study.  There are times where I adjust from singles to rep work for my lifters based off of some performance parameters.  We do this for 1 week in place of max effort and then we pick up max effort the following week.

 

The fact that these lifters did daily maxes every training day for 10 weeks is pretty impressive and interesting.  We have 2 to 3 days of max effort per week (it can be less if we have rep work in another spot).  So we have lighter days thrown into our programs.

 

These lighter days allow for recovery and a focus on technical efficiency as well as rate of force development.  Keeping the lifter fresher and improving technical efficiency can lead to even greater success on the max effort days.

 

The variation on the max effort days seems to keep training interesting and fun.  After 2 to 3 weeks of max effort of the same exercise we see a decrease in performance.  This study used the comp lift throughout the whole process.  This had to be done for the sake of research but imagine how much better the daily max group would have done if it could be applied like it would in the real world.

 

The results were comparable, and better in some areas, for the daily max group under those circumstances. This is pretty amazing to me.  It also shows that periodization is not necessary in a strength training program.  I will say, if the daily max group never had a plan to be flexible and adaptable, I think in the long term the periodized group would win out.  However, having a plan on how and when to use those maxes mitigates that piece.

 

When I first started getting into powerlifting, I was definitely against a conjugate style of training.  My main concern was the technique.  Heavy singles will lead to a breakdown in technique.  I wanted every repetition to look the same.

 

However, over time I learned that we can learn more from error than from success.  I also learned about a constraints-led approach.  With this approach I can place lifters in positions that punish that technical inefficiency.  I learned by doing this that the heavy weight is needed to punish these inefficiencies.  Anyone can get away with poor technique with the empty bar, but not 500, 600, or 700lbs.

 

Putting the lifters in those positions that disallow completion of the task under heavier weights, removes that negative of lifting heavy singles.  Also, those singles make up a small percentage (7-10%) of our total volume.  The other 90+% of our training is performed with submaximal weights.

 

When I was less experienced, I would argue that accommodating resistance used like it is used in Westside does not match the strength curve of the raw squat.  We always used accommodating resistance on bench and deadlifts.  However, we used just a small amount of accommodating resistance.  There was nothing wrong with this, but I now feel like heavy bands and chains have a place in training.  I have seen firsthand how squats have blown up with them, mine included.

 

I think one big reason is for the overloaded eccentric.  Controlling the tension on the way down and beating it on the way up has a lot of carryover to straight weight.  It teaches constant acceleration of the weight, something you can’t learn with straight weight.

 

Hatfield preached about compensatory acceleration, moving lighter weights as fast as possible having the same effect as moving heavy weights.  Straight weight needs to have deceleration to reach the top because the end speed is 0.  The bands and chains force the lifter to keep accelerating due to the increase in load as the bar approaches lockout.

 

Light bands and chains do not have this same effect as the initial drive out of the hole still carries the lifter through to the top.  I have found that the accommodating resistance needs to be close to 100% of 1RM or higher at the top on max effort days.  On the dynamic days, it needs to make up 20% to 35% of the total weight being lifted.  It needs to be heavy enough to punish the lifter if they explode and coast in the squat, but not so heavy that the bar weight is too light.

 

Another major argument against conjugate is the lack of specificity.  First, we need to identify what is specific.  This is a sport where the lifter takes max singles of a squat, bench press, and deadlift.  What is more specific?  A squat at 75% for a set of 6, or a squat where we move the feet out 2 inches and hit a heavy single?  It is the heavy single.

 

Max effort attempts require a different motor unit response than submax reps.  You need to train that ability in the gym to have it on the platform.  Submax work increases technical efficiency, which is also important.  Also, max weights train the mind to handle heavy weights and to not be scared.

 

Our volumes tend to remain about the same week to week with little fluctuations.  There is very small incremental increases in the workload as the lifter increases their strength.  That is all that is needed.  We have this belief that every week something needs to increase.  Why every week?  It is made up to fit a calendar.  Same with 4 week blocks, it is just 1 month.  They are random time frames.

 

In Russia a lifter may go from 800 lifts to 1300 lifts in a 5 year period of time.  This would be an increase of 100 lifts per year (these numbers are made up and it probably takes even longer to make those increases).  That means the lifter will perform 8 more repetitions per month each year.  That is 2 more reps per week each year.  That is a really small increase.

 

Often in a linear program or a DUP program you will see way more than that increased each week.  That increase in workload can lead to increases in nagging issues.  Keep increasing and those nagging issues can turn into something bigger.

 

Inexperience is a big issue in powerlifting.  You can throw a ton of volume on a lifter at one time to be sure you get enough of a stimulus to see results.  In some cases you will see remarkable results right away.  However, we need to look at the long term.

 

A conjugate training program is more of a long term strategy.  Volumes rise very incrementally over time as the lifter gets stronger.  This is exactly what Sheiko did with me for 3 years.  My number of lifts remained the same, but as I got stronger each percentage was a heavier weight and my workload increased.  I drove the increases in workload, not the program.

 

A conjugate program requires the coach to actually coach.  The coach needs to be able to identify the weaknesses of the lifter and put that lifter in positions to strengthen those weaknesses.  The coach also needs to guide the program to fit the needs of each individual.

 

Each individual comes with different genetics, motivational factors, and outside stressors.  Helping them make the right choices on each training day is the job of the coach.  Anyone can make a fancy Excel spreadsheet to do all of the work.

 

I encourage everyone to read Dr. Loenneke’s new paper titled “The Basics of Training for Muscle Size and Strength: A Brief Review on the Theory.”  Him and his colleagues breakdown the literature.  Seems more is based on dogma than science in the world of powerlifting.