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.

Is Periodization Necessary for Strength Sports?

 

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

Periodization is defined as the systematic planning of physical training.  The goal is to be able to “peak” for the most important competitions of the year.  The training usually consists of specific periods where certain physiological components are stressed more than others.

 

The idea of periodization came about due to Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).  GAS has 3 phases, the alarm phase, resistance stage, and exhaustive stage.  Basically, the organism will respond to stress by adapting to it.  However, too much stress can lead to overtraining, and too little can lead to limited or no adaptation.

 

The idea of planned training is to keep the organism within the resistance stage without ever reaching exhaustion.  This is where preplanned deloads come in, usually following a period of higher workloads.  During this period of lighter resistance, the organism adapts and recovers to a new and higher level of performance.  This is known as supercompensation.

 

Russian physiologist, Leo Matveyev analyzed the results of Soviet Olympic athletes from 1952 to 1956.  He compared the training plans of the most successful athletes and came up with a plan for the Soviet athletes for the 1960 Olympics.

 

The Soviet athletes had enormous success and the world wanted a piece of these Russian training principles.  This is where the idea of periodization spread and was further developed by Tudor Bompa.  Bompa’s texts were part of my undergrad and grad school readings still today.

 

As periodization became more popular and was used more widely, many adjustments were made to the original ideas of Matveyev.  The Russians began instituting a longer term athlete development system.  This was known as PASM (the process of achieving sports mastery).

 

Children were selected at young ages to attend schools that focused on the sports that they were selected to.  These sports were run like a school subject.  Multi-year training plans were laid out to bring these athletes to the level of Master of Sport and beyond.

 

These schools focused on training many athletic qualities at a young age.  This is contrary to the West where early specialization dominates.  The idea is that by developing a greater set of motor skills at a younger age, athletes will have a greater foundation to build more specific skills off of.

 

This is where Yuri Verkoshansky comes onto the scene.  His earlier research looked at the Principle of Dynamic Organization.  He viewed sport as a problem solving activity in which movements supply the solutions.  Since movement is controlled by the CNS, training should be utilized to enhance and create more efficiency within the CNS.  These movement solutions are constantly changing as the body is always looking for more efficient solutions.  Sound familiar?  Dynamic Systems Theory and a Constraints-Led Approach build off of this principle.

 

Verkoshansky saw problems with the concurrent style of training, training multiple aspects at once.  The athletes required too much volume in order to address all of the qualities of athletic performance.  This is where Block Periodization came in.

 

Each block would focus on a specific athletic trait, while the others were being attempted to be maintained.  This was known as the Conjugate Sequential System (CSS).  This often gets confused with the conjugate method made famous by Westside Barbell.

 

Westside does not use conjugate periodization.  They use a concurrent training style, also known as complex-parallel training.  They train multiple aspects at once, max effort, dynamic effort, and repetition effort.  Verkoshansky describes this type of training as being only appropriate for low level athletes.

 

Keep in mind these training programs are being written for Olympic athletes.  These were not being written for powerlifters or weightlifters.  A lot of the ideas spread into that training, but it was not the primary focus.

 

Field athletes need to be fast, agile, strong, flexible, quick, conditioned, technical, tactical, and so on.  They require so many different physical qualities to be successful at the highest level.  This is why block periodization makes sense.  In order to focus on all of those qualities in the gym and also their sport specific training would require too much volume and the athletes would risk injury.

 

A barbell sport is not that complex.  The gym training is the sport as well.  The list of traits to train are much smaller.  A powerlifter needs absolute strength, rate of force development, and some technical skills for the 3 lifts.  The need for breaking up training into blocks does not make sense to me for powerlifters.  For field athletes, maybe.

 

This is most likely where daily undulating periodization (DUP) comes in.  Instead of breaking training into blocks, each aspect is given its own day.  Hypertrophy is one day, strength another, and power is another.  Sounds a lot like Westside’s conjugate method, but we can continue to argue about that on the internet.

 

The main difference is how each of those days is setup.  Many of the DUP programs are much higher volume and maybe higher frequency as well.  There is usually very limited maxing out on singles.  Another major difference is with the use of variation.  The conjugate method uses a lot of variation, while many DUP programs only use the comp lifts.

 

The argument is for sports specificity.  I have a hard time understanding this argument as a set of 6 reps is not specific to the sport of heavy singles.  It is not more specific then moving your feet out an inch or two, or the bar an inch higher on your back and hitting a max single.  Max singles are the sport, so wouldn’t that be specific?

 

I think the argument would be that max singles are too difficult to recover from.  People will look at the Bulgarians and discuss the burnout and the negatives of that training system.  They do this while missing the positives, they were the best in the world.

 

Russians were dominating the strength sports for a period of time as well.  This may just be a byproduct of time in the sport.  They started at a young age lifting weights and building very solid technique.  A 20 year old in Russia has over 10 years of learning the lifts, while here in America they may be picking it up for the first time.  Culture matters in many ways.

 

I wonder if the heavy singles were shied away from with field athletes and that fear of “overtraining” due to the belief that GAS is true, just filtered into strength sports?  Sheiko did not use heavy singles because the technique would breakdown.

 

His goal in training was to get every single rep to look the same.  This trains one stable movement pattern.  As technical efficiency increases, the athlete will lift more weight.  This gets back to what Verkoshansky said about training the CNS to be more efficient and the Principle of Dynamic Organization.

 

Sheiko visited Westside and spent a whole day with Louie Simmons discussing training.  He said the difference between his style and Simmons was that he focused on technique first and Simmons focused on strength first.

 

This does not mean that Westside doesn’t focus on technique.  They do, their dynamic days are to work on technique with lighter weights.  They also focus on attacking weaknesses, just like Sheiko, but just do it differently.  Sheiko would alter the ROM on bench and deadlifts to lift higher absolute loads and use chains on the squat.  Multiple ways to skin a cat.

 

The problem we ran into running a more submax type program was with the psychological component of training.  Psychological arousal can alter movement patterns.  The only way to get that psychological arousal is to put heavier weights on the bar and lift at or near maximal.

 

No one denies that maximal singles elicit the greatest motor unit recruitment.  Many of those Russian texts state that after a couple of weeks of maxing out, the athlete will see a decrease in performance.  This is absolutely true.  However, this is where variation becomes important.  Change the lift, and this issue goes away.

 

Let us get back to the original question, is periodization necessary for strength sports?  First off, GAS does not really apply to training.  Selye electrocuted mice and weighed their brains afterwards.  This doesn’t mean that it is entirely wrong, but it is definitely not a principle to base training around.

 

Recovery is important and that will be individualized based off of genetics, motivational factors, life stress, nutrition, sleep, and so on.  You can only train as much as you can recover from.  Powerlifting is the one sport that people seem afraid to actually practice the sport.

 

Nothing will build better 1RM strength than taking 1RMs.  As I mentioned earlier, this requires some paying attention by the coach as after a few weeks, we can see a drop in performance.  This is where variation comes into play.

 

Load management is also important here.  Some variations will require more absolute loads and others the lifter will lift less.  The lifts with high absolute loads are testers, and the lower loads are builders.  The coach can structure training in a way to limit or to push absolute loads in any way they see fit to meet the individual’s needs.

 

Like any coach, a powerlifting coach needs to address the skills of the sport.  This means building absolute strength, rate of force development, and technical skills.  There are physical and psychological pieces to all of this as well.

 

All of this needs to be structured in a way that allows the lifter to recover.  So, there needs to be structure, and it needs to be flexible and adaptable, but it does not need to be periodized.  The goal is to get as many max effort lifts in as possible over the long term.  This is the sports specific training.  Think of it as practicing for the sport.  The more you practice, the better you get.

 

The other days need to work on technical skills as well as rate of force development (the ability to generate force more quickly).  Think of this as more GPP for powerlifting.  These days will not directly influence the 1RM, but they help the lifter learn more efficient movements, and improve their ability to generate force more quickly.  They then can take these new acquired skills and apply it to the max effort lifts.

 

This does not require training to be broken up into blocks.  I have found that the longer a lifter is removed from max effort work, the harder it is to get back the psychological components of lifting heavy.  Too much time away from lighter weights being moved quickly and the lifters get slower.  Training works best if we focus on all of these aspects in a more concurrent training program.

 

Block training may work better for high level field athletes, as they still practice their sport which includes all aspects of their sport.  This will at least allow them to hold onto sport specific skills while training in the gym is more specific to one of those physiological components.  Every sport does have an off-season where they take a break.  This helps for mental and physical recovery.

 

Most lifters will get breaks throughout the year due to vacations and life circumstances.  The competition schedule for powerlifting is not as grueling as field sports.  Most lifters compete 2-3 times per year.  In field sports, 2-3 competitions in a week is very common.

 

I find deloads to be completely unnecessary as life usually takes care of that.  We do not need to pre-plan a deload.  This does not mean that the program should not be flexible and adaptable to individual needs.  It needs to be, and each person comes with their own set of individual circumstances.

 

Instead of planning a month of training, or more, we plan 1 week at a time.  Based off of how that week goes, and life circumstances upcoming in the next week, we plan the following week.  If a lifter hits a true max in one week, the following week we will use a percentage of that lift and just hit some sets and reps.  This serves as a nice psychological deload so to speak.

 

If a lifter’s week gets dragged out into Sunday for a day 4 where they squat, we will change day 1 from squats to bench, allowing them to get more recovery to maximize the max effort squat session.  We do all of this while rotating exercises every 3 weeks to help psychological burnout by keeping training fun and interesting, and to also follow the law of accommodation, which states that over time the organism’s response to a stimulus will decrease the more they are exposed to it.  This is why Sheiko was very adamant on load variability being very important.

 

Having a plan is very important for the athlete seeing continued success and staying as healthy as possible.  This does not mean that we need a periodized program.  The plan just needs to be flexible and adaptable to accommodate the individual.

How the New Qualifying Totals Changes Things

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

If you compete in the USAPL, I am sure you were made aware this week that the qualifying totals for nationals went up by quite a bit.  Nationals has always been this enormous event.  Each year has been larger than the year before.

 

So many parts of me hates how big it is.  However, I liked it because it got the sport in front of so many people that have not seen it before.  Every lifter shares the live stream with friends and family.  Many view this sport for the first time.

 

My lifters would see the live stream and want to compete at Nationals.  This was the goal of the majority of the team when they started.  The old totals were not very hard to achieve.  Anyone can qualify for Nationals as long as they work hard.

 

With lower qualifying totals you don’t have to pay attention to technique as much, and those that are naturally strong can qualify pretty easily.  We have a bunch that qualified with less than 2 years of lifting experience. One started with the empty bar.

 

Due to the totals being a little lower, and the goals of the team being to qualify, we were able to mess around in the gym with more things.  We could try things out, see if they worked well, and implement them or throw them away.  I could talk about those things, and the internet trolls could come out and have some fun.

 

At the end of the day, it was a great learning experience.  I learned a ton about fatigue, strength development, technique, and so many other factors like the importance of psychology.  I learned what happens when you just follow a program and also when you allow the lifter to be more in charge.  Big surprise, the sweet spot is in the middle, dependent on the level of lifter.  Training skill matters.

 

With the new totals, we can’t fuck around so much if our goals will remain the same.  We went from having 17 on our roster qualified to 4.  Some of those that are no longer qualified are very close and will get there.  Some will be sitting out in 2020.  2 out of those 4 have goals of winning a National Championship.  The other 2, 1 has a top 10 total, and the other will be competing at the Pro-Am.  This is the level of lifter that will be at Nationals now.

 

For the record, I absolutely love this increase.  I got so many texts from lifters telling me what they are going to hit now to qualify, and then they went into the gym and absolutely got after it.  We definitely have the right attitude for this.  This team absolutely competes and loves a challenge.  It shows their long term commitment to the sport too.

 

It does have to change how we do things quite a bit.  If we are going to mess around and try something it needs to be well within reason now.  It needs to follow the rules a bit more, but the rules that I learned over these last 5 years from messing around with lifters.

 

With so much contradictory information out there, I had to figure it out for myself.  Now, we have our own way of doing things based off of what we learned over that time.  There will be less flexibility compared to times before, but more than where we started.

 

The exercises will be selected based off of individual weaknesses, and the rotation of max effort days will be individualized as well.  However, if a lifter feels great and it is a lighter day, they will still do the lighter day.  We put time limits on it, so they can just move faster.  In the past, I would let them go up in weight here.

 

I have learned over time, that lifters can get after it on these days, but that light day is going to come no matter what.  In some cases it ends up being forced by pain later on because the lifter would just continue to go hard.  That whole complex theory of biological systems is true.

 

There will be peaks and valleys.  I always assumed I could guide the process to allow the lifter to self-organize into their peaks and valleys.  In theory I still think this is true.  However, the self-organizing part might include the organism experiencing pain or burnout.

 

We were reacting to how everyone was feeling instead of just being pro-active with our high, medium, and low stress days.  If you feel good today, but go lighter, you will feel even better tomorrow.  Then you can crush something big on the max effort day, the day that is there to build 1RM strength.  All of the other stuff can be adjusted over time.

 

Technique is going to matter more as well.  I have always held technique as being important.  However, there are times where I allow certain things to slide because I feel that getting after it is more important than that minor flaw for the lifter to achieve a goal.

 

With the totals going up, the minor flaws have now become major ones.  There is far less room for error.  This is going to require more coaching from me.  Accessories, which I go back and forth on, have now become more important again because every little bit matters.

 

Coming from the Sheiko background, I am still a firm believer in spending time doing the things we know work.  We actually do backdown work after our max effort.  This are very Sheiko-esque in design of intensity and volume and exercise selection.

 

Later in the week we do dynamic effort and/or repetition work.  Again, this is very Sheiko-esque, but may be organized a little more like Westside with sets and reps, but a higher intensity.  Some blocks these will be lighter, others heavier.

 

I stole the circa max idea from Louie but do it in a more Sheiko-esque way.  We may do a bunch of sets at 80-85% of 1RM, or maybe even a bit heavier.  A 3 week wave of this will be tolerable for everyone.  We learned this leading into Nationals.  However, after that point there is a decrease in the benefits.  These days are there to practice that technique by hammering technical and muscle weaknesses.

 

Accessories will fall into place after this.  I do not think they are necessary to get stronger.  We use heavy singles for that.  Where they become important is for conditioning.  This has become more important now, because we will have to push it a little harder at times.

 

The accessories are going to build tolerance to load for muscle groups trained.  If your low back is a limiting factor in a lift, we got to build up its tolerance to load, so that we can continue to push hard in the competition lifts.  If your triceps tire out on bench, and it limits your performance, we got to condition them to handle more load.

 

We got to condition our bodies to handle more work than before so that we can achieve the same goals, because it is going to require more work now than it did before to get there.  We need to be prepared for that.

 

The training environment needs to continue to grow as well.  We need each other to push one another and keep stretching what we are capable of.  Powerlifting is for everyone, but PPS will not be.  We need lifters to add to the training environment with their attention to detail and their drive.

 

This has nothing to do with total, but everything with attitude.  Lifters that are inconsistent, don’t compete, don’t fill out their sheets, will no longer be members of PPS.  This culture will be one that allows those goals to be achieved.

 

I love these totals going up.  It will push the top lifters of each weight class even more and America will continue to dominate the IPF.  It will also push PPS to be even stronger because we are now reaching for much larger totals.  The timing was perfect as well because it was time to step up the training environment to help push those National competitors towards a podium spots.

 

This will make the local meets and Regionals even more competitive than before as well.  I think this is great for the sport and I am fired up to get after it with everyone.  LFG.

Why Training Harder is and is not the Answer

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

The title of this article may seem a little contradictory but hear me out.  I have discussed the uncertainties with fatigue quite a bit in past articles and on podcasts.  I have also discussed the importance of self-organization for each individual to find the sweet spot of when the lighter days or weeks comes into play.

 

They were instructed to take how they feel and make decisions based off of those feelings, combined with how weights were moving while warming up.  I coach competitive powerlifters.  There is not much “taking it easy” in this group.

 

What I observed were the lifters getting strong as fuck very quickly.  They were coming in each week and just crushing it.  Some were ripping off 8+ weeks of continued PRs.  This led me to question everything I believed about fatigue and programming.

 

I decided to let it continue to run and see what happens.  What I realized is that going balls to the walls can be done for a period of time.  This period of time seems to be about 6 months.  Keep in mind that I coach beginners to intermediates.  This number may significantly drop with a greater skillset within the sport.

 

After that period of time, the lifters would start to develop some nagging issues and some loss of motivation.  In spite of my telling them not to do this, some would continue to push and end up suffering a setback.

 

Oftentimes, when the lifters started to experience a nagging issue or a drop in motivation, we pulled back for a week.  After this semi-deload, we would see a PR in many cases.  This is a good sign that there is some fatigue building up here.

 

I have mentioned this issue as well, we were getting slower from the constant intensity.  I assumed the warmups and first few reps of higher rep sets would be enough to maintain speed.  The Russians showed that all four aspects of strength are seen in a jump, the same is true of max effort lifts.  Speed matters here.

 

This is a case for, training harder is not the answer.  We probably didn’t need to train as hard as we were on a day to day basis.  By hard I am referring to the intensity of the lifts.  However, we could train harder on given days.

 

We were staying within an RPE 9-9.5 on a daily basis.  We ran 6 week cycles on average that would start at 5 reps and taper down to singles.  This is mostly submaximal work.  Anything over a single is submax, plus everything we were hitting was under an RPE 10.  This is all submaximal.

 

We have switched over to utilizing more singles for maximal effort work.  I have learned that volume is what really beats you up.  The closer we are to 1RM, the better it is at building our 1RM.  Now, we have learned that we can’t do that every single day.  We also need to have some workload within a training plan.

 

When I was coached by Sheiko, fatigue would be an often used tool to build technique and increase perceived effort.  Westside uses a similar approach with their dynamic effort days.  I have begun to incorporate something similar within our programs.

 

I am calling these speed days to enforce what I want out of the lifters.  These days use typical daily volumes and intensities that I utilized with Sheiko.  I even incorporate some of his special exercises within these days.

 

In the past we may have done 5 sets of 4 reps at 70% squat with chains.  I like Westside’s view of getting more first reps in training.  We now might do 10×2 70% squats with chains and you need to finish within 20 minutes.

 

I have done similar things with pauses on the halfway down squats, high bar squats, paused box squats, and many others.  This day is to not only develop speed, but to work on technique.  Our goal on this day is to be fast and technical.

 

There are times that we will push the intensities of this day with straight weight.  We may do a 10×2 at 80% with a bit more time to complete the training.  Most people can hit 80% for at least 5 reps.  This would make the RPE a 7, pretty fast and manageable for technique.  Fatigue builds, raising that perceived effort.  This should have greater carryover to the technique under more maximal weights, but without beating the lifters up too bad.  We would often get this same number of reps at 80% on a given day with Sheiko.

 

Managing loads on the maximal effort days is also important.  We squat for max effort on day 1, and day 3 we pull heavy.  We have been pulling heavy on day 2, but we need to space this out a bit more.  There is some skill involved in coordinating these efforts.

 

The goal of max effort is to practice straining like we will on the platform for third attempts.  The weight is only secondary here (although if a lifter is scared of a given weight this needs to be addressed).  We can choose a max effort squat that limits the absolute loads.  This seems to save the lifter quite a bit.

 

For example, Dave has been doing wide stance box squats w/ bands and chains.  This limits the weight on the bar to between 85% and 90% of 1RM.  The accommodating resistance was adding another 150lbs.  This exceeds his 1RM at the top, and the strain was as hard as anything I have seen him perform.

 

This allowed him to pull heavy on his day 3.  We also used bands and chains here, but less of them so that we could get more bar weight on the floor.  The bar weight was a little over 90% off the floor but overloaded the top slightly so that Dave could work on that lockout.

 

Even doing this, every 3rd week seemed to be a down deadlift day.  Moving forward we will add in speed pulls in this spot.  Fitting the deadlift into max effort work with squats is very tricky, but it definitely can be done.

 

I do not think we need to deadlift as often as we squat.  Even if we deadlift heavy 1-2 times per month, I think that will work well.  Seems like most can go for 2-3 weeks before they need a break from the pulls.  Oftentimes, we keep squats very heavy during this week and the lifter is still able to recover for the following week.

 

Westside does not deadlift as often, and they only have 1 max effort lower day.  Being in the equipment, they lift a lot more absolute loads than we do.  I think this matters and gives us the ability to add in some more max effort lower exposures per month.  This is true even if it is just 1-2 of those exposures.

 

We are running most exercises in 3 week waves.  Week 3 is where we really send it.  Perhaps we go whole hog on the squats, but deload the intensity of the deadlifts on this week.  This would make it a lower intensity deadlift day every 3rd week, but lets the lifter push it the first 2, when the squats aren’t achieving a full out max.  We tend to leave 5-10lbs on the bar during those weeks.

 

If we are capable of going all out for 6 months at a time before we start seeing some issues, adding in these lighter speed weeks, and pulling back every 3rd week on the pulls, will extend that 6 months even further.  Fatigue is an accumulated process.  These days are not easy, but they are different and a break from heavier weights.  They also get the lifter in and out of the gym in much faster times.

 

We may use lighter bar weight and accommodating resistance at times on these speed days.  This may allow for even more recovery and allow us to stretch out the max effort sessions even longer.  I am sure lifters will need a break at some point but finding balance can allow us to do max effort lifts on a year round basis.

 

Training is the accumulation of days, not what we can stretch out of one day.  I think we are getting closer to something that will allow us to train hard over each calendar year.  This is a huge advantage to our performance.

 

We are going to train harder than we have on given days, but we are going to pull back harder on other days. That is how training harder is and is not the answer.

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.