Determining Volumes and Intensities

Written by: Kevin Cann

This is often the most difficult question for a coach to answer.  I have literally tried everything from high frequency, to higher frequency, to all singles, in search of the perfect volumes and intensities of training.  I am sure many reading this have experienced the exact same thing.

I think as a coach, the impatience of lifters has sometimes driven my haste decision making.  At the end of the day this is a performance driven job and if lifters feel they are not making progress they will underpay some other coach to deal with their crap (I am kidding here, but you get the point).

My inexperience as a coach would also drive these changes in a couple of ways.  For one, I inexperience leads to a lack of patience and understanding about how strength is developed.  There are no such things as plateaus.  Every single lifter will experience long droughts in the display of new strength.  EVERY SINGLE LIFTER.  

Those “Bust Through Your Plateau” articles are nothing more than shitty clickbait from a coach that doesn’t know their ass from their elbow in how to get people strong.  This lack of patience usually leads to a lifter jumping to higher volumes and/or intensities.  They see success and then tell everyone that “Higher frequencies or volumes just work better for me.”

Everything seems to be very near sighted in the sport of powerlifting.  You want to exhaust every bit of adaptation from each variable in training before you progress it.  This includes the long term development of a lifter too.

It is important to learn the technical aspects of the sport earlier on and build the volumes and intensities over time as it is appropriate.  Often lifters will disregard the technical aspects and continue to throw performance on a weak foundational base.

There are ways that can get you very strong very fast in this sport.  One way is to throw a lot of continual stimulus onto someone, instead of letting them adapt to current stimulus fully.  This can lead to a lot of very strong lifters with poor technique.  At some point the poor technique will catch up with the lifter, as will the constant increase in training volumes.

So what do we do?  Where do we start?  Once we have those answers, how do we progress?  For one, this is why I am a huge fan of using percentages to determine training loads.  They are more stable than utilizing something like RPEs.

If 75% is easier on a given day, just execute the reps more efficiently.  If it is easier every time you train with it, it shows you are getting stronger, there is no need to add weight here.  Let it be lighter, execute it better, and add weight after you hit your new PR.  Just because it is easier it does not mean we need to add more weight and more volume.  You are most likely already stronger.  Allow those adaptations to settle in.  This is how we build stable performance.

I have made this mistake many times.  We would call this large and consistent increase in performance “riding a wave.”  The problem was that these results were not stable.  Lifters would hit large PRs, but not be able to reproduce those results over and over.  Even if they did reproduce them at a competition, there would be quite a backslide at some point.  The newfound strength was just not stable.  

Sheiko always said to make slow steady progress, but it was a lesson that I needed to learn for myself.  Maybe you are hitting the weights at lower RPEs, but the execution is not where we want it to be.  This is not self-organizing into what works best for the lifter in the long term, this can often be self-organizing into shitty technique.

These are the moments we can utilize the same loads and really overload technical efficiency.  We should not have pushed more progress, but instead to take the small increases in current strength and fucking own them.  We should have executed them over and over with better and better technique.  Once they became stable, then we should have gradually added weight.

This is a lesson that it has taken me quite some time to learn.  This has greater long term results on lifter performance and lifter health.  So where do we start for volumes?  This is going to be very dependent upon the methods of the coach.

Depending on the types of training utilized, the recovery costs of each day will be very different.  I am a big proponent of singles in training.  This is the sport and addresses the technical components of heavier weights, which are much different than submaximal weights.  It also addresses the psychology of each lifter.  Heavy weights produce a psychological arousal similar to competition.  This should not be overlooked in training strategies.

Heavy singles come with a recovery cost of about 48 to 72 hours.  This needs to be taken into consideration by the coach when planning training.  From there, there is a given workload that the lifter can recover from, anymore is going to take longer to recover from, and less is a recovery day.

Coaches will argue that the workload needs to be individualized, and this is true to a given point.  At some point there is a minimum amount of work that needs to be done.  This is another reason why I like percentages.  It allows for stable workloads for the lifter to adapt to.

When I worked with Sheiko and got new maxes, the first 3 to 4 weeks would be brutal, but then it would get better, and eventually a lot easier.  When it was easier, I was able to really dial in my technique and execute new PRs.  I feel fluctuating loads too frequently in training, through the use of RPEs, throws this off a bit.

Each system is different, and some coaches have a way of addressing these situations while utilizing more subjective feedback to do it.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this at all, just a different means of doing it.

I took the lifter recommendations from Sheiko, analyzed my own training, analyzed the training of my lifters, and developed my own recommendations for volumes and intensities.  Our program is very different because of our utilization of max effort singles.

I have said that the one that can perform more singles in training will win out.  I still believe this, but I think there is a caveat.  I think the one that can perform more singles, while getting adequate volumes between 70% and 85% will be the one to win out.  The Russians found that 2/3 of the lifts should be completed between those intensities.

By rotating max effort lifts and utilizing higher frequencies at the end of the week we can accomplish this.  We get the same amount of reps between 70% and 85% of 1RM, as I did when I was coached by Sheiko.  However, we get this with heavy singles in training.

 Understanding the recovery cost of the singles as well as stabilizing workloads, we can have high, medium, and low stress training days that allow for adaptation, maintenance, and recovery.  The rotation of max effort lifts gives each lifter a psychological break, but also allows us to get higher volume weeks in there.  A week with a lot of singles will be less volume, and ones without singles, will be higher.  There are weeks with 1 to 2 max effort lifts, that are in the middle.  This is how we organize training.

The greater the well-being of the lifter, the higher stress training days they get to increase adaptation. However, we do not increase it at too fast of a weight.  Allow the weights to mature and ripen before we increase them.  Jess Ward benched 181lbs at the Arnold for a very tough single.  Over the next 6 months we took 185lbs over and over again until it was a stable weight.  This led to her benching 187lbs at her meet last weekend, with no issues at all.

Now we go into the next training block with a new max, and we will allow the next PR to stabilize itself in a similar way.  The lifter is responsible for their nutrition, sleep, recovery, focus, and stress management.  The more they do on their end, the quicker the progress tends to come.  This is how the coach individualizes training while following general training principles.  This is self-organization, but self-organization that is being nudged properly by the coach.

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