How Important/Individualized Should Technique Be?

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

Everyone is their own little unique snowflake.  American culture, especially embraces the individual much more than the group.  We see this play out in powerlifting quite frequently in the way that technique is taught, or better yet, ignored.

 

I have honestly struggled with this.  In the past I was hardcore about technique, then I laid off a little, and now I am kind of swinging back to where we started.  This time around I have a better idea of what I want out of the lifts from everyone, and what is more individualized.

 

I think I needed to give a little more technical freedom to learn these things for myself.  The first example that comes to my mind is head position in the squat.  There are 2 camps, head up, or head down.

 

I teach the squat with a head straight or chin slightly elevated position.  This increases the tone of the back muscles and gives them greater leverage to hold and push back against the weight on the lifter’s back.

 

The back muscles are extremely important in the squat because the bar rests on them.  If the back muscles are not strong enough to support and push back against that weight the lifter’s hips will rise faster than the torso out of the hole, decreasing and changing the muscles used in the lift.

 

Also, if the lifter’s back muscles are not strong enough to support the weight, the lifter will start the squat with a greater torso lean.  This can lead to the lifter not getting the start command, and it also decreases the use of the legs within the squat.  The barbell-athlete system may also be unbalanced in this position.

 

Many will argue that there are very strong lifters that squat with their head looking in the down position.  This is not a false statement and perhaps that does allow them to lift more weight right now.

 

In the past, I would be the one arguing this as well.  I would chalk it up to individual differences and allow them to do it.  Now, I am not so sure that was the right move.  I have changed my stance on this a bit.

 

If you are more comfortable with your head down, this tells me that there is an upper back weakness that we should not embrace and avoid, but that we should work on even harder.  When the chin and eyes are down the back is round.

 

The lifter creates a shelf for the bar from leaning forward, instead of creating tightness.  This often pushes the head further away from the bar as well.  The body will follow the eyes, and the barbell-athlete system is pushed forward of the middle of the foot.  This will be especially true under ever increasing loads.

 

A Russian study showed a 9% increase in power on the deadlift with the chin slightly elevated when compared to the chin in a down position.  A deadlift is nothing more than a high squat with the bar in the lifter’s hands instead of on the lifter’s back.  This shows the importance of the back muscles at those angles.  This is also why we use that same head position on the deadlift.

 

Shin angle is another example that comes to mind here.  Lots of lifters are stronger with a more pronounced shin angle.  This is most likely due to most lifters having stronger quads than hips and hamstrings.  Again, this may lead them to lifting more weight now, but is it the most efficient for long-term continuous progress?

 

I believe that the hips and hamstrings are very underrated in the squat.  I know what the EMG studies show for the hamstrings in the squat.  Not sure I really care what muscles untrained lifters use.

 

My theory is that the two joint muscles of the leg, the rectus femoris of the quads, and the hamstrings, allow force to transfer between the other quad muscles to the hips.  We do this while supporting the barbell on the back.  Any shifting horizontally of the barbell will result in a change of the muscles being used.

 

This would explain why loading the hamstrings on the way down in the squat is important for technique and preventing the chest collapsing forward out of the hole.  Many will argue this is a quad weakness, but my eyes tell me something different.

 

I actually think that the quads are strong enough (they could leg press that weight no problem), but the hamstrings are not strong enough to stay stiff and transfer the force to the hips.  This is if the back muscles stay taught and maintain the barbell over the middle of the foot.  Hips and upper back tend to be common weaknesses, which may be why the chest collapsing forward in the squat is a common technical mishap.

 

I think so many lifters prefer heeled shoes and a closer stance because they can use their quads more and try to work around the weaker hips and hamstrings.  They sacrifice stability from a flatter shoe for more use of the legs (I am actually kicking around the idea of all my lifters spending more time in flats).

 

In a conversation with Anthony Oliveira, he said something that I couldn’t agree more with.  He said if you can’t squat in flats, you should be working on the things that allow you to, not just changing shoes and ignoring it. He is absolutely not wrong there.  Your success in this sport is how hard you are willing to attack your weaknesses.

 

This does not mean that the heels are gone forever.  At some point, technique is what it is, and it is time to go get on that platform and just worry about putting up the biggest total.  However, those time periods are far smaller than the rest of the time we spend training.

 

Also, should lifters that have been lifting for less than 5 years be doing what “they feel is best?”  I am not so sure that is the way it should be.  They should be working on the technique that is going to allow them to have continued progress in the sport.

 

This is why I love a conjugate training style.  I choose max effort exercises that punish those technical inefficiencies while allowing them to strain under heavy weights.  Then we get rep and speed work thrown in.  This is where attention to detail is used.  We use variations here, but it is lighter with a lot of sets to practice what we need to work on.

 

I do not want the lifter focused too much on technique with the max effort.  I want them to dial it in early on with warmups and then get after it.  After the top set, we will talk and work on something with backdowns and on the other lighter squat day.

 

Rome was not built in a day.  We do this and try to get a little better each rep, day, week, month, and year.  Perfect technique does not exist, but we strive towards it forever to keep progress moving in the right direction.

“Evidence Based” is the New “Functional Fitness”: IDGAF About Your Science

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I will admit that that title is quite a bit of clickbait.  I just did not know what to title it and wanted to get started.  To be honest, I read a lot of the research.  However, I am selective on what I read.

 

I really do not give a shit about EMG studies.  I had a discussion on IG, with someone that was referencing studies showing that the quads and adductors are the main movers out of the hole in the squat.

 

My post was in regard to pitching forward in the squat when the lifter comes out of the hole.  It is easy to look at that EMG study and chalk it up to weak quads and/or adductors.  However, this is not the case in the real world.

 

When I started lifting, I was coached by Boris Sheiko.  I had this technical error.  Sheiko told me this was due to weak hamstrings and glutes.  I got lots of good mornings and hyperextensions to build up the hamstrings and hips.  My squat went up 200lbs over the next 3 years.  I was a beginner so maybe this is just beginner gains, right?

 

I definitely did not have weak quads.  I played soccer through college, a very quad dominant sport, followed by over 10 years of mma, again very quad heavy sport.  In spite of all of this, I was too smart for my own good.

 

I read those studies and began to really hammer the quads for those pitching forward in the squat. Improvements occurred, but it wasn’t as great as I expected.  I started shifting my focus to more skill acquisition research.  This is research I actually care about.

 

I decided to treat the pitching forward as a skill issue and utilize positions that disallow it.  I also decided to utilize a position that would target the hamstrings and hips more.  This would help give me some answers in the real world to what muscles are being used.  I was confused with the contradictory information out there.

 

We utilized wide stance squats here, which are less quads and more hips, and it punishes a pitching technical fault as the lifter will not stand up if they pitch.  We would do this only for a period of time and then bring the feet back in.  Big surprise, the pitching improved immensely, and the squats went through the roof.

 

This goes against those EMG studies but supports what Sheiko and what Louie Simmons say about the role of the hamstrings and glutes in the squats.  In fact, those studies showed almost no hamstring activity in the squats at all, leading to the conclusion that the hamstrings do not play a major role.

 

The 2 coaches I mentioned above have over 80 years of coaching world record holders and world champions.  Do we just disregard what they say because of some EMG study?  I did that once and will not do that again.

 

In my post I was explaining a typical cause of pitching forward.  Many lifters will drive the knees forward hard to initiate the squat.  This loads the weight onto the quads.  In fact, on my post, my lifter was doing box squats for a max effort exercise.  She sat back well to initiate the squat, but halfway down she drove the knees forward hard.

 

This is a sign of weak hips, not weak quads.  On this set, she had a little bit of pitching off of the box.  If she had driven the knees forward hard from the start the pitching would be worse.  Just like a deadlift, we need to load the hips, hamstrings, and back before the concentric.

 

If we do not do that for a deadlift, the lifter will pitch forward.  Why would the squat be different?  When my lifter pitched forward off of the box, the quads actually get it moving, and I believe the hips can’t handle the transfer of force.  It is no surprise that these technical faults are shared between the squat and the deadlift.

 

I have read somewhere that perhaps on the way up, the glutes and hamstrings actually pull the hips down to counter the quads and give the erectors more leverage.  This makes sense logically.  Whether it is true or not I am not sure.  What I witness in the gym seems to support that theory.

 

When we watch untrained lifters squat, they tend to drive the knees forward hard to initiate the lift.  This is exactly what I am talking about.  This EMG reading would make sense to be lots of quads and adductors in the bottom, and little to no hamstrings.  Does this mean this study is the way to lift massive weights?

 

No, this study is showing what muscles are used by untrained lifters.  Even the studies on trained lifters seem to be a little off.  In a study I read the other day, the trained lifters average 1RM on the squat was 165kg.  A weight that is below the squat of a 150lb female on PPS.

 

In Russia, they actually perform studies on their high level lifters.  This is why I am so quick to take the word of Sheiko with these things.  He actually performs a lot of these studies.  They take a biomechanical analysis at Russian Nationals every year as well.

 

I think many lifters here forget about the role of the lats in the bench press.  Most will argue they do not play a major role.  This is why the bar path is always said to come back towards the face, to give the pecs and delts more leverage.

 

There are 17 different bar paths that Sheiko saw at Russian Nationals.  Only 4 have ever produced world champions.  In 2015, a study on Russian lifters looked at the lats role.  All 4 had strong lat activation on the press.  Lats shut off for the last.5 seconds to allow the delts to finish the lift.

 

There are certain things that lifters can get away with under lighter weights.  The heavier the weights get, the less they will get away with.  Instead of looking at what untrained or weaker lifters are lifting I would rather listen to the lifters that lift the largest absolute loads as well as the coaches that have coached lifters at the highest levels.

 

This does not mean that science is useless.  I am big on the skill acquisition research.  One study I mentioned above was about movement variability within the lifts.  I love that stuff.  I am also not advocating for everyone’s lifts to look the same.

 

Forward knee travel is going to be dependent on strengths of the lifter, their build, and stance width, and even choice of footwear.  However, I choose to have the moment arm of the hips be greater than that of the knees during the squat.  This puts more emphasis on the hips.  This seems to be the best way to lift massive weights, and to keep progress moving up.

 

I know raw lifters are quick to shit on multiply lifters.  I used to do the same thing.  However, these guys and girls lift the highest absolute loads possible.  I understand that technique is dictated by the gear, but there are some things to pay attention to.  Also, the squat suit you need to sit back into to get the most out of it.  This is basically like having super glutes.  Maybe getting your hips strong as fuck is what the answer is here.  This is an assumption based off of my confirmation bias though so take it for what it is worth.

 

As a coach, my job is to teach the technique that I feel the older lifters and coaches have figured out.  This is why I appreciate the skill acquisition literature.  It guides me on the best way to teach each lifter.

 

This is where I blend science with experiences of those that came before us.  I have also had quite a bit of experience at this point as well.  Enough time to mess with things and see what works.  I will keep reading the literature on dynamic skill acquisition, and I will continue to disregard EMG studies done on untrained to intermediate lifters without seeing their technique.

My Implementation of “Speed Work”

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

Over the course of the last 4-5 years we have gone from running a very “Sheiko-esque” program, to switching gears a bit and making it more intensity focused.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still lots of influences from Sheiko within our programs.

 

I still am big on technique being the most important aspect of training.  A Sheiko program was very big on building technique with repetition based training.  Sets very rarely went over 85% of 1RM and when they did the ROM was often manipulated.

 

We saw very good results using this type of training.  However, when weights became near maximal, the lifters technique would breakdown.  I also noticed that the lifters would get very nervous when the weights got heavy.  These nerves definitely played a role in this breakdown in technique.

 

I had this belief that we make technique efficient with lots of repetitions with lighter weights, but we were not practicing the situations that the lifters are put in during maximal lifts and competition.  I knew I needed to use weights large enough to create an emotional response within the lifters.

 

I manipulated variations more and we loaded them up.  These variations would hopefully punish technical inefficiencies and force the lifters to perform the lifts with better technique.  Over this period of time I noticed we got stronger and stronger the heavier we lifted.

 

When I was implementing this, I figured the warmups would be enough sets in those lighter weight zones to get the repetitions/practice needed to improve technique.  Reps are important for these reasons.  I think of strength training as a balance between brute strength and technique.

 

The variations and the repetitions working up to top sets should help technique, and the heavy top sets should develop the brute strength necessary to move more weight.  We are definitely moving more weight.

 

Yesterday Doug, a 66kg lifter who finished 10thin the Juniors at Nationals last year, squatted 460lbs on a wide stance box squat.  This is 55lbs more than he squatted last October, and 40lbs more than he squatted at the end of April.  These types of jumps are not that uncommon.

 

To change courses just a bit here as I feel it is an interesting observation.  Oftentimes when these large jumps level out, we get a longer stagnation period.  This is what made me interested in complex theory and power-law relationships.

 

This may be why most coaches want 5-10lbs at a time.  It might keep motivation higher by constant increases in performance.  I do not agree with this philosophy.  Tomorrow is not guaranteed, take what is there now.

 

Mike D’amico put 50lbs on his squat from Regionals of last year to Regionals this year.  It just so happened he did it from January to April and it has leveled off since then.  This is very good progress on one lift in a year from someone that has been lifting for more than 5 years.  Progress is not linear, however.

 

These periods of stagnation are important.  The Russians have a saying, the weights and workloads must mature and ripen and then we add more.  In complex theory, in order to have an “avalanche” the system needs to reach a point of criticality.

 

What we see with these large PRs is a large avalanche, a small PR would be a small avalanche. There are no differences between the causes of large and small PRs.  Once the avalanche is over it takes the system time to build up to a state of criticality.

 

During this period, the lifter gets to use the same weights and workloads over and over as strength slowly builds in the background.  This allows those weights to mature and ripen as the Russians say.

 

In terms of stress, training is pretty stressful when those PRs are happening frequently.  Constantly hitting newer and newer weights in all kinds of positions becomes very tough training.  As it levels off, the stress is lowered as the weights become more and more familiar.  The same psychological arousal is not necessary to handle the same weights anymore and technique becomes more consistent.

 

I have said in the past that these periods of stagnation are necessary.  They are a normal trend in complex systems for a reason.  The reason is far outside of our understanding, but we can use this time period to our advantage.

 

Many lifters struggle to realize this for some reason.  If they go a month or 2 or 3 without seeing progress on a lift, after having very good progress for a period of time, they think progress has stopped.  Too often lifters look into the day to day instead of the longer term trends.

 

There is a reason why most high level coaches say you cannot peak for more than 1-2 competitions in a year. Progress is not linear.  A few months is not a long time in the giant scheme of things.  Periodization tries to account for these “down” times by phasing out training.  The problem with that is we cannot predict when those “down” times are going to occur.

 

These periods allow us to refine technique because more weight is not being added to the bar, so brute strength is taking a backseat.  On paper this all sounds great and I stand by the science.  However, lifters do not necessarily make the best decisions on a day to day basis.

 

We talk frequently, but to develop this skill it will take years.  I got lifters that will just max out every day they come into the gym. These lifters are maniacs.  The program calls for a top set between RPE 8.5-9.5.

 

If you feel like shit, keep it at an 8.5 and maybe take an extra set there, or not.  Feeling good, push it a bit.  These should still be submax weights that the lifter can control. There will be some breakdown, but we learn from errors.

 

When we get closer to an RPE 10 more frequently, our technique will change in ways we cannot account for with variation.  Lifters will begin to squat slower and bring the bench press down slower.  The lifter will lose some pop off of the floor with deadlifts that could be due to position, or just being a bit fatigued. The fatigue I don’t worry about as much.

 

I needed to find a way to keep this in check as well as making sure we are not just maxing out every day.  If we did not work full-time jobs and live in a culture that fears fatigue, we would be able to push those RPE 10 lifts much more often.

 

One thing I have been doing over the last year when a lifter gets stagnate in a lift, and begins to lose confidence, is adding in a block of “speed lifts.”  These basically follow Prilepin’s chart with shortened rest. Many times we took 90% singles for a handful of sets.

 

Prilepin’s chart has some downfalls to use as a main tool for deciding intensities and volumes. For one, it was for weightlifters and not powerlifters.  However, it is a good starting point for the lifter to get quality reps.  We can increase the difficulty by decreasing the rest.

 

A lot of Sheiko’s program would fit nicely into Prilepin’s chart.  The intensities were made greater by adding a pause or accommodating resistance. The total volume would often exceed the recommendations of the chart.

 

Adding in this “speed work” occasionally can have some big benefits.  In chaos theory some small perturbations can create large outcomes.  These are not predictable, but I think this can help a lot.

 

For one, these weights are a nice psychological break from lifting heavier more often.  An example would be 8-10 sets of 2 reps at 80% to be completed within 25-30 minutes.  This will be hard, but hard in a different way than what each lifter is used to. The intensities will range from 75% to 90% for 1 to 4 reps for 6-12 sets.

 

These weights will allow lots of practice with lighter weights, while keeping effort high.  It will also get the lifters in and out of the gym.  Too often lifters will take very long rests between sets and end up lifting for 2-3 hours. 2 lifts in a “speed day” should have them in and out of the gym within 1 hour.  This allows for more time to recover and to get other life things done.  Time becomes a stressor for lifters because we all have lives outside of the gym and we need to get shit done sometimes.

 

My implementation of it will not be each week.  To start I will add in a “speed week” every 3rdweek.  Most lifters can push really hard for 2 weeks when they know we will be pulling back.  I will give them more freedom here to go harder on some of those days as well.

 

If they feel good, we will send it.  I think this is a nice compromise between myself and those lifters I have that live the RPE 10 lifestyle.  I also think it gives everyone a bit more flexibility in training.

 

I feel adaptations are more likely to occur when we do extreme things.  Doing extreme things, comes with higher risk for consequences as well.  I think this will be a nice way to get some extremes into training while mitigating some of the consequences.  Guess we will see.  The early feedback so far has been very good from the lifters.

 

Seems to build confidence and momentum while working on technique with relatively heavy weights.

Technique + Strength + Skill, Oh My

 

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I have officially been involved in the sport of powerlifting for 5 years now.  I literally had to do the math a few times because I did not believe it.  The older I get the faster that time seems to move.  My daughter is somehow 11 years old too!

 

Over this period of time I have been fortunate enough to learn from so many other coaches and athletes. I also have been fortunate enough to learn from so many of the PPS lifters as well.  We have changed what we do quite a bit over time.

 

Being coached by Sheiko for the first 3 years, our programs looked very similar to what Sheiko’s looked like.  However, I found out that that style of training will not work as well with lifters here.  A big reason for this is due to our culture and the time we spend in this sport.

 

In Russia they go to schools where powerlifting is basically a subject.  From the time they are a youth athlete, they are part of the Soviet System.  To save time I will not go into details on how this works, but they follow this system for over 10 years before they are even a junior in competitions.

 

Not every athlete there climbs up the classification chart to be a Master of Sport in International Competition.  Many lifters “wash out” of these schools long before that happens.  Once they are identified to not have what it takes to get further, they are given a certificate for their current classification and they move on.  Some might even move on to coaching.

 

The ones that end up becoming a Master of Sport or higher are the ones that continue to see progress with this style of training.  My guess is this is the same as the Greek and Bulgarian systems as well.  Not every Russian reaches this classification, we just hear about the ones that do.

 

Sheiko was big on technique first.  This often gets misunderstood in translation.  He would control loads but make them more difficult with variations to work on technique within the lifts.  You would get a lot of practice with these variations and these same loads. Training was very hard, but very hard in a different way.  It was a lot of work, often taking over 3 hours to complete a session.

 

We had great success using these methods, but I learned that technique was still breaking down with heavier weights.  I remember Sheiko talking about meeting Louie Simmons and the difference in their programming.  Sheiko said that Louie emphasized strength first, while he emphasized technique first.

 

This wasn’t a criticism of his methods.  Instead it was a very enlightening conversation about how coaching works. Sheiko also said that powerlifting is big enough for many different methods.  This also resonated with me quite a bit.

 

I started adding in more heavier weights into our training.  Over about a 2 year period, we added many heavier weights into our training. We work up to 1-2 hard sets of an RPE 8.5-9.5 each training session.

 

I also added in more drastic variations to bring a skill component to our training.  I started placing lifters in positions that would punish technical inefficiencies, and we will push weights in these positions. This is how we acquire those skills. Lifting heavy also allows the lifter to practice their skill of competing.

 

When we go to a competition, most lifters for PPS are not nervous.  We do this every day in the gym.  We compete.  Not against each other, but against ourselves and our emotions.  We learn to harness them and be more confident lifters.

 

Perhaps we swung the pendulum too far towards the strength side.  When I initially changed things up, I assumed the warmups would be enough to get those sets in to work on technique.  However, I realized many lifters were taking huge jumps and all of the focus was on the top set.  The warmups were just pushed aside as nothing more than that, a warmup.

 

Also, lifters were taking huge jumps to not be “tired” for their top set.  Basically, lifters were doing like 9 seconds of good solid work for each lift.  That is it. That is a far cry from the 3+ hours we would train in the beginning.  This made me realize that I need to interject here again.

 

I started giving more days with more “top sets”. For example, a lifter might hit a hard set of 3 reps at 300lbs on the squat, at an RPE 9.  I might have them hit this for 2-3 sets the following week, and then even maybe 3-4 sets the week after that.  Sometimes I drop the weight a little to do this.  The following week we may work up to a heavy triple again. This has been working well.

 

They get more practice with submaximal weights that are still heavy, and we see that triple go up pretty significantly.  When we push a single now, we see a bigger number on that bar.  I base these decisions off of their best competition lifts.

 

This is a nice parallel between how we ran a Sheiko style program before to what we do now.  It takes care of the weights being too light, and since they work up to a heavy set the week before, I have a good idea for what weight we put on the bar.  These sessions are VERY difficult.

 

One other aspect of a Sheiko program is the alternating of stress levels on each training day.  Some days are high stress, others medium, and some low.  When I go back and look at everyone’s programs now, we see this trend play out for everyone.

 

We have been doing a lot more comp singles in training as well.  This is not something we work up to each training day.  This is a weight I prescribe, that they are not allowed to go up from.  If they feel like shit they can go down, but I encourage them to just hit this weight no matter what.

 

This weight is a hard, but doable weight.  It is not something they should miss.  Often it lies between their best double and triple.  On a good day it might be an RPE 8, and on a tough day it will be a solid RPE 9. It is basically practice with a weight between an opener or second attempt.

 

This helps me to gauge their progress a bit.  It also gives each lifter some feedback as to where they are at on a given training day and it can help them make better decisions on their other work.  It highlights some weaknesses within their comp lifts too and they work on tightening it up under that given load.

 

I have gone through periods of time where I put more emphasis on accessories and less emphasis on them.  This has been one of those things I have really struggled with.  I use far more variation now than I used to.

 

We are constantly changing foot position, bar position, grip, and stance.  This is to ensure that we are training all angles and creating well rounded lifters.  I think this decreases the need for accessory work.  Accessory work comes in more as a filler when the volume drops for the competition lifts and their variations.

 

My programs have gotten far simpler over time.  I write a lot about theoretical concepts, but our programs are extremely simple.  I give the lifter way more responsibility now. I went from being a dictator to being a facilitator.  I guide the process with exercises to improve technical efficiency, suggested weight, and many conversations to help each lifter make the best training decisions possible each training day.

 

Over my 5 years of coaching in this sport we focused on technique over everything, swung the pendulum far to the strength side, and began to focus on strength as a skill.  Now it is time to bring it all together.  To take these last 5 years of learning and put our best product on the platform.

Why Do Reps Even Matter?

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

This is a question I have been asking myself a bit lately.  This article is just going to be some thoughts, an inside to my thinking process if you will.

 

My guess is that this started around the 1970s when there was this obsession about the Russian’s training secrets.  This was the birth of our periodization models here in America.  These periodization models broke training up into specific phases.

 

These phases tend to be a preparatory phase, a competitive phase, and a transition phase.  The preparatory phase recommendations are for lots of non-specific high repetition work.  In some sources they recommend around 12 to 20 reps.  The competition cycle would be more specific work and between 2 to 8 reps, and the transition phase would be time off after competition.  Perhaps the lifter does some different activities here.

 

Over time this got adapted more.  There became hypertrophy, strength, and power phases.  Even those these phases had different names it was the same exact model repackaged in a different way.

 

So, back to my original question, “Why do reps matter?”  The idea between higher rep sets is to increase the size of the muscle within the lifter.  Theoretically a larger muscle has the ability to lift more weight.  When we look into the literature this narrative just does not hold true.

 

Muscle mass can be obtained from various loading schemes.  However, strength tends to be higher in the groups lifting heavier. This makes sense as the heavier loads are more specific to the sport.

 

There is some correlation to larger muscles moving more weight, and if you are a coach or lifter that performs high rep sets for this, and you enjoy doing them, by all means keep doing it.  I am just not convinced by the available evidence that this is worth the time, which is also a constraint on lifters, in the gym.  There is a Boston’s Strongcast episode with researcher, Dr. Loenneke, that discusses these topics in further details.

 

If we analyze the sport of powerlifting this may help to give us our answers.  It is a sport where the lifter takes 3 attempts of a single repetition of the squat, bench press, and deadlift.  Each attempt gets heavier from the first attempt to the third attempt of each lift.

 

The third attempt should be a maximal lift for the lifter.  A maximal lift may take anywhere from a couple seconds, and I have seen upwards of 11 seconds.  Looking at this information, I would say that reps matter up to the maximal amount of time the lifter will be lifting a maximal attempt for.  For the information I have, 11 seconds (that was on a deadlift, squat was 8 seconds, and bench was a little less than squat).

 

This is the equivalent to a set of 3 repetitions.  A hard set of 3 reps is probably taking a bit longer as well.  The research has shown that to get stronger, you need to lift larger loads.  Well, what is a larger load?  The research suggests that loads greater than 85% of 1RM are ideal.

 

Research also suggests that the internal loads, not the external loads, are the drivers of physiological adaptation.  The most common way to measure internal loads is with RPE.  From practical experience I have found that an RPE 8+ is pretty sufficient for strength increases.

 

The closer to maximal we get the better here.  My guess is it is due to psychological factors.  The heavier weights peak arousal from the lifter.  This forces them to handle their emotions.  As Keith Davids says, “Training should have consequences.”  There are a large number of lifters that undershoot this RPE, so I make our hard sets a range from 8.5 to 9.5.  I would rather them overshoot here than undershoot because of the number of sets we are performing.  Usually starting out at 1 to 2.

 

The dogmatic argument to this is that you can’t lift heavy every day like that because of overtraining. The idea of overtraining comes from Hans Selye who shocked rats in the 1930s.  This literally has nothing to do with lifters taking a handful of hard sets 3-4 days per week.

 

Research struggles to induce overtraining symptoms from intensity alone, and they do things that are far removed and much crazier than the real world would.  There needs to be an endurance component to this.  Higher volume programs have an endurance component, perhaps this is where that fear came from?  I do not know.

 

The argument then is always “But volume matters!  You’re dumb! (insert appropriate emoji here).”  Not all volume is created equal.  Seems there needs to be a higher intensity to it, and a duration of no more than about 11 seconds.

 

We typically start at 5 repetitions.  My argument is that this gives the lifter greater exposures to new variations to figure it out.  It is hard to load it up for a heavier triple right away.  When I go back and analyze the 5s, I saw some interesting things.

 

Reps 1 and 2 are definitely not intense enough to be included in the volume that matters. Reps 4 and 5 were mostly effective reps, and rep 3 was sometimes effective.  Keep in mind the majority of the sets are taken at around an RPE 9.5. The days of the 8.5s is usually when the lifter is feeling a little tired and banged up.  This puts that 3rdrep around an 8.

 

On sets of 3 the first rep is probably outside of the range of intensity to be counted as an effective rep. However, the 3rdrep is important for the timing component of the sport.  We need to learn how to lift for upwards of 11 seconds.

 

In terms of volume, we need to define how we use volume.  Most use total tonnage and average intensity.  I use “number of hard sets.”  I don’t care whether it was a set of 5 or a set of 1 it gets the same score, 1 volume unit.  The reason for that is with the effective reps for one.

 

Also, there is a lot of uncertainty with using volume to predict progress.  Tetlock showed in a long running study that experts with more information tended to make worse predictions.  I choose to keep it simple and to give me an idea about how hard the lifter is working.  If progress seems to be stalling, we can add more hard sets.  This is pretty simple.

 

I think reps are important for practice.  However, we want them to be more deliberate for the sport that we are competing in. A set of 10 at 70% is not practice for powerlifting in my opinion.  The weight is too light to create technique issues, it is too light to create an emotional response, it lasts longer than 11 seconds, and its reasoning is based off of Russian folklore from the 1970s and before.

 

I view volume as measuring practice time within the sport itself.  Wouldn’t I want to know how many sets the lifter is performing that is actually going to yield benefits?  Wouldn’t this help me see the training process better and give me the necessary information to make the decisions for that lifter to increase progress?  I think so.  Of course, we can’t forget about manipulating other factors such as exercise selection.  That is usually my go to.  You will be surprised at how often adding more volume is not the answer.