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.

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From Sheiko to Where We Are Now

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

This article is going to go with a solo podcast I just recorded.  I discussed how I started and how we ended up doing things the way that we do them now.  This is going to be a quick addition as I believe that people think we do so many things different than we did before.

 

When we were mimicking a Sheiko program before we were using a specific number of lifts and average intensity based off of lifter classification.  We used percentages for these numbers.  Technique was the primary driver of exercise selection and those other factors.

 

We would squat 2 times per week, deadlift 2 times per week, and bench 3-4 times per week.  There would be high, medium, and low stress training days sprinkled throughout the block.  We would even do the dreaded double lift days.

 

Currently, I do not write sets, just exercise and suggested top weight.  There are no percentages and the top sets are just a range of RPEs from 8.5 to 9.5.  The frequencies of lifts shift around as well.  The rest of the information is lifter dependent.

 

The lifter chooses the number of sets based off of how the day is going and how they feel they need to warmup.  They have rules governing the top sets.  They are to get 1-2 at RPE 8.5-9.5.  I give a suggested weight, but they can adjust accordingly.  Sometimes it does not work well at first, but then they drop the weight and work back up and hit it.  Sometimes they don’t work back up.

 

If they do not work back up, that is a lighter or medium stress day.  They still have those; they just self-organize into them.  We get so hellbent on general principles being true that we think we can predict when the lifter will need a break and we think we can predict performance.  None of this is true.

 

The human body is pretty amazing.  There are all kinds of feedback loops that can dictate this process if we just listen. If fatigue is going to affect performance, we will see it by the top set being less than we anticipated.  Sometimes the lifter feels tired and still exceeds that number.

 

We need to embrace uncertainty and understand that we are not smarter than the human body.  I will vary frequencies based off of performance for the lifters.  Sometimes 3 days a week where we squat twice, bench 2-3 times, and deadlift once is better. Sometimes we need more.  It often will look exactly like it used to with 4 days per week.  Squats and deadlifts twice and bench 3-4 times.

 

We still use double lift days as I see appropriate.  I still use variations to attack the technical inefficiencies.  These variations make up the majority of the volume just like they did before.  I vary more now, where before everything was in comp stance or grip.  Now I move the lifters around in a bunch of different positions.

 

Instead of getting lots of sets for practice, I choose to have a more targeted approach where our practice will be more specific.  We will get the 1-2 sets at a very challenging weight.  Effort at the end might be the same, I just choose to use a heavier weight as I feel it is a different skill and has an emotional response from the lifter.

 

This is a constraints-led approach.  We get more deliberate practice, so we don’t need as much.  There was the old 10,000-hour rule that was believed to be true, but research suggests that it comes down more to the quality of training than the quantity.  How much each person needs are dependent on that person.  Everyone learns at a different rate.

 

Everyone has different stuff going on outside of the gym.  We do not know how this stuff can affect performance, but sometimes it may be best to just do 3 days as trying to get that 4thday in just becomes a stressor to them.  Sometimes performance stalls and we got to suck it up and get that 4thday in.

 

There are no answers. As a coach I feel we need to guide the process with the general principles in the back of our minds.  I learned the general principles from Sheiko, and you can still see how heavily our programs are influenced by him.  I choose to use 1 to 2 hard sets for the number of lifts and average intensity now, but technique is still first.  The structure changes throughout as I see fit, but much of it is still influenced from the structure I used under him.  It may seem very different, but it is not so different at all.

Long Term Skill Acquisition in Powerlifting

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I have had this conversation quite a few times in the last week and I think it makes a very interesting topic.  I view strength as a skill. Not just the technique of the lifts, but the actual physiological adaptation.

 

The definition of a skill is “the ability to do something well, expertise” and “A particular ability.” If we are really good at something, we even identify it as a strength.  Developing a skill is also a dynamic process.

 

In skill development there are progressions, regressions, skips, and jumps.  This is the same as in strength training.  Developing strength is also a dynamic process.  It is a dynamic process that the coach needs to understand both short term and long-term pieces of.

 

In most sports there are long term skill development plans.  I played soccer growing up so I will use that as an example.  At 5 years old the ball was smaller, the field was smaller, the goals were small without goaltenders, and the number of kids on the field was far less than 11.

 

The reasons for all of this go far beyond what many understand.  The ball being smaller allowed the kids to develop appropriate skills for kicking the ball.  If they used the larger adult sized ball this would alter mechanics to move the heavier ball and have an impact in the long term on kicking skills.  The goal is for the kids to self-organize into appropriate kicking technique within a game.

 

The field was smaller because the kids are smaller.  A larger field would not be appropriate for the speed and size of the current players. It would be a very different game with in game skill development being something that would not carry over as much.

 

The goals were smaller without a goaltender to encourage kids to shoot and aim for a target.  If a goalie was in the net there may be hesitation from the kid to shoot.  There may also be a focus developed on the goalie instead of the target.  The goal being smaller allows them to self-organize to a technique that allows them to put the ball in a smaller space.

 

The smaller sided games are actually to avoid swarming to the ball.  This helps to teach appropriate spacing on the field that will carry over to later on.  All of these pieces serve a purpose.

 

In powerlifting I think many forget this.  They want everything right now.  I understand this modern day thinking with the internet being a highlight reel of people hitting big weights.  Athletes need to understand where they are in their journey and how to appropriately set themselves up for the long term.

 

Most lifters start powerlifting later in life.  This isn’t a sport that many start at a young age here in America.  There are a few and they just happen to be the best coaches around now.  We need to understand this part in the beginning.  It isn’t about starting them at lower volumes and building them up.

 

These lifters have developed strengths and weaknesses based off of their experiences.  At this stage in their life their perceptions, beliefs, and sociocultural surroundings have molded them into the human in front of us. This means education is a big part of our job in the beginning.

 

As a coach we want to develop the whole athlete.  Many of the current world champions come from a bodybuilding background and the Eastern Europeans have about 10 years of GPP work before their training becomes specific. This builds a great foundation to build the lifter.

 

This is not usually the case here.  Most programs will call for high volumes of competition lifts.  This can yield fast progress off of the bat, but it can hinder the athlete later on.  This is one reason why I believe lifters see progress for the first couple of years and then there is a drop-off in total or a sustained plateau.

 

Kerry had asked/yelled at me the other day “Why hasn’t my deadlift moved in years!?”  This is one reason why I believe it has been stuck. I wasn’t attempting to build the complete athlete.  I was only attempting to strengthen her comp stance deadlift.

 

Kerry competes in a medium stance sumo where her knees will straighten and back will round under heavier weights.  This can’t be fixed from this position and to build a resilient athlete as well as strengthen weaknesses we need to alter angles.  This shifts emphasis to different muscles that have been ignored and punishes less efficient positions by disallowing the lifter to complete the task.

 

For Kerry this means a lot of wide stance sumo deadlifts.  This will strengthen her hips to take some pressure off of her back to pull. If the hips and legs catch up to her back strength, there is a huge pull to be had there.  However, I kind of fucked up there and it is going to take time.

 

She trained with that less efficient position for 4 years.  This isn’t as simple as putting a variation in for a block and everything is ok. She competed with a wide stance deadlift at the Arnold and we have continued to build it from there.  She has already doubled a weight that didn’t budge a month ago.  There is still a lot of work to be done here to get it where we need it to be.

 

I hindered Kerry’s long-term progress by not being a good enough coach.  Thanks Kerry for sticking with me through all of this.  I remember Sheiko saying that a world class lifter needs a world class coach.  Kerry had an elite deadlift when she started, I was not ready at the time to handle that.

 

Luckily, she was not elite in the other 2 lifts and we have had increases in total each year due to those continually growing.

 

I asked Sheiko how I get to that level.  He said that I must think about powerlifting 20 hours a day.  The rest of the time is spent training.  I think there was about an hour break per day where I could think of something else.  Reasonable.

 

I have literally done that since that day.  It has brought me down some fun rabbit holes and has gotten me to this point.  Without Kerry’s deadlift we are probably not seeing the results we are today as a group.

 

Some will argue that that is just how she pulls.  Yes technically it is, but it is definitely inefficient and will have a lower ceiling than if we correct those issues.  Those issues cannot be corrected with lighter weights.

 

I would sit there and give her a lot of feedback on each repetition in training.  This is not usually my style, but I think my frustration coming out as trying to do too much and fix it with words.  This feedback is not appropriate.

 

Our jobs as coaches is to guide discovery for more efficient positions.  I was having a good conversation about this with Alyssa. Alyssa is a PhD candidate for educational leadership.  She is doing some research on this topic and how it applies to learning.

 

Even though it is intended for the classroom, the same principles apply to skill acquisition.  The research shows a lot of support for guided discovery groups performing much better than groups receiving a lot of feedback.

 

Basically, these studies are usually setup where one group receives a lot of instruction from an administrator while another group will be given the same task except with constraints placed upon it to help them discover the appropriate behavior.

 

Oftentimes the instructional group will perform better in the earlier tests.  However, upon coming back and being forced to recall the information they tend to score much lower than the guided discovery groups.

 

This means that the feedback you give a lifter today may make the lift look better, but in the long run, or under higher stress, the ability to recall it will be lower.  This is why I follow a constraints-led approach.

 

A constraints-led approach allows me to alter the task in a way that punishes less efficient positions by disallowing the athlete to complete the task.  It also allows me to place the athlete into all kinds of various positions to see where their strengths and weaknesses are.

 

From there we get a good glimpse of the whole athlete.  We can then build a complete lifter that is strong at all angles.  This builds resiliency as well as an increased skill of strength.  These changes in angles are the feedback for the lifter.

 

Instead of focusing on my words they are focused on completing the task at these different angles. Different angles that are usually punishing their positions that they tend to fallback too.  The sensory input that they receive is their feedback. Feedback that will have higher recall rates under higher stress conditions, like heavier weights or a competition.  We also load these positions up with heavy weights respectfully.

 

Every athlete predicts movements before they occur.  Every repetition they perform gives feedback that gets put into this predictive process. Over time we have a higher level of skill because this is more subconscious than conscious attention.  A coach’s words are conscious attention.

 

When our lifters are surfing Instagram, these perceptual processes are also being updated.  This is why education is so important.  This is why it is also important to be adaptable as a coach.  It is not as easy as this variation will fix this problem.

 

Each athlete is different in how they learn.  Tweaks to these exercises will need to be made.  The human is also dynamic.  They are constantly changing initial conditions that the coach needs to be aware of and make the appropriate decisions.

 

My understanding of this has made me change how I write the programs quite a bit.  I no longer write number of sets.  I let each athlete decide that based off of how each day goes. I will write the exercise, reps, and suggested top weight.  They adjust accordingly.

 

Through this process we have a lot of conversations.  These conversations help educate each lifter on making appropriate decisions.  I feel this is the best way to address all of the things that we know can positively and negatively affect training.

Fatigue: What Do We Really Know?

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

There is an old saying “The more I learn the less I know.”  I think this statement misses the mark quite a bit.  To be honest, the more I learned, the more I thought I knew.  If you truly want to know something you need to be observant.

 

Observing lifters going through training will tell you what you know and what you don’t know.  I had Jacob Tyspkin on the podcast, and he made a great point.  He said that general principles are all right until you narrow them down for the individual.

 

As coaches when we are trying to learn more, we are reading articles and books.  We are looking for answers in every place but the place that can give us those answers.  The only place where that answer lies is within each individual in front of us.

 

This is hard though. This requires us to develop our skills as a coach.  Learning to write a program is easy, learning to actually coach takes time.  I am still learning these lessons.

 

We have these general beliefs about volumes and fatigue management.  Like Tsypkin said, these general principles are true until we narrow it down for the individual.  When you look at this from an individual perspective it is very messy.  In fact, it is chaos.

 

If we were as simple as machines that just adapted to mechanical stress than we could predict and reproduce results based off of mechanical stress.  However, that is very rarely the case.  In my experiences results have never been reproducible.

 

We may get positive results from the same stimulus, but the extent of those results always is different. For example, maybe adding in pause squats led to a 10lb squat PR in a block, but the next time you use them you only get a 5lbPR, or 15lb PR.  It is never the exact same.

 

Of course there are other variables that go into that but using that example so you can see what I am saying.  Strength is not a linear process so why would we apply linear strategies to it?  If we truly want to know the answers, we need to ask the individual.

 

How do we do this?  We can’t just go up to our lifters and be like “Hey, what are the best volumes for you?”  They would have no idea.  However, they do have that answer and a well-constructed program can help you find those answers.

 

I gave the lifters freedom to come and get after it as long as they were physically and psychologically capable of it.  What I witnessed was pretty amazing.  When I started coaching, I would structure programs with high, medium, and low stress days.

 

I have never been a fan of classic deloads.  They never made a lot of sense to me.  Having a well laid out plan with enough high stress days to drive results, medium stress days to maintain, and lower stress days for recovery made more sense to me.

 

Around this same time I began working with Jeremy Hartman.  We had a good conversation about coaching, and he gave me a documentary to watch.  This documentary was about the weightlifter Dimas who won medals in 4 Olympics.

 

One part of this documentary really stood out to me.  He had said it took 3 years for him to get used to the new coaching style.  He went from a Soviet Training System to the Bulgarian Method.  This seemed difficult for him.

 

He didn’t totally buy in at first.  He asked the coach for more volume.  The coach collaborated with him and told him that he can take more warmup sets.  Over time Dimas adapted to it and the results were remarkable.

 

There are a couple of things here that caught my attention.  For one, the coaches willingness to collaborate for buy in.  This is more important than many think.  Also, that once he bought in and believed in the system, he not only adapted but excelled.

 

Learning more about the Bulgarian Method, coming from a Soviet System, was interesting to me as well. The Soviet System yielded great results within the Soviet Union.  However, here in America the results were not quite the same and I have a best guess for that.

 

In the Soviet Union they go to schools where powerlifting is a class subject.  They are taught all about the Soviet System.  Their perceptions and beliefs are that it is the best for strength training.  Here in America we do not have schools like that, we have Instagram.

 

The perceptions and beliefs of the American lifter is very different.  American lifters do not have the same beliefs in their coach either. This is why you see them constantly jump from coach to coach.  Cultural aspects are also a part of physiological strength along with the perceptions and beliefs of the lifter.

 

The Soviet System works well in Russia.  This is lots of submaximal volumes.  The Bulgarian Method works well over there.  This is less volume and more heavy sets.  Both of these programs work when it is in line with the perceptions and beliefs of the lifter and they have a good relationship with the coach. Again, it comes down to the individual.

 

I want to take into account all of this stuff with a program.  I want to structure the program in a way that is in line with their perceptions and beliefs, and that accounts for general strength principles at an individual level.

 

In doing so, I had to forget about a lot of what I thought I knew.  I set up training in a way that gave as much flexibility as I think I can, and I just observed.  What I observed was that volumes don’t matter anymore than what the lifters perceive them to.

 

There is no magical number of lifts or tonnage for each lifter.  Our understanding of overload is weak at best.  If the lifter feels they got a good training stimulus, chances are they did.  We are led to believe that as we train, we build up fatigue, see a dip in performance, deload, and supercompensate and come back stronger.  This isn’t true either.

 

This works sometimes and doesn’t work others.  It also never works exactly the same way.  However, many times we hit PRs in the middle of training blocks when fatigue should be high.  So what does this mean?

 

This tells me that the general idea of mechanical stress overload and supercompensation is poorly understood.  We need to let performance dictate decisions and when performance decreases, we need to stop and think for a minute.

 

If performance decreases and you believe that the fatigue aspects are true, you will do whatever you can to dissipate that fatigue.  This may work, but it very well may not work.  In cutting down work and deloading here you may actually limit the adaptations of the lifter.

 

Chances are if they just kept plugging away, they would adapt and come out stronger.  This is of course assuming that there are no glaring physical pains that are negatively effecting performance.

 

We definitely need enough training to elicit a training stimulus.  All my lifters get 1 to 2 hard sets as we call them.  These sets are anywhere from an RPE 8.5 or higher.  We do this every training day unless the lifter has some soft tissue thing flaring up.  Even then we may just tweak the exercise and carry on as usual.

 

What I have learned from doing this and just observing is that fatigue does not affect performance like we think.  In many cases lifters will start to feel a little banged up, like elbow pain, or back tightness, or knee pain.  We keep at it and the pain goes away and they start hitting these continuous PRs.  That is adaptation right there.

 

If the pain is altering mechanics or decreasing performance, we don’t just plow through.  We make the adjustments that are needed in those scenarios. There is the athlete taking their low stress day for recovery.  Most of these pains recover very quickly.

 

I actually think pain and “fatigue” in powerlifting is more psychological.  This doesn’t mean it is in your head.  It is physical pain wherever you are feeling it.  However, there isn’t tissue damage.  You can still make the pain worse too so hear me carefully.

 

Outside of the acute fatigue that builds up within a training day, the days after are also more psychological in my theory.  The recovery aspects of training from a physical standpoint are quick.

 

This doesn’t mean you just say you are ok, and you are.  This is happening at the subconscious level and it is tied to our beliefs, perceptions, and emotions as well as our cultural upbringing.  Those that played sports tend to recover “faster” in my experiences.

 

I also believe this can be trained, but it requires a strong relationship between the athlete and coach. This requires strong communication between the two.  With that said we shouldn’t be afraid of fatigue.  There is a lot to be gained from training in a fatigued state and still hitting PRs.

 

Once the PRs stop it is time to change the stimulus and repeat it all over again.  This usually means we alter the exercise a bit to attack what I see as a weakness.  This weakness is either a strength issue or an efficiency issue.  We feel out the exercise and then right back to loading it up.

Coaching in Chaos: Embracing the Theoretical

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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