Written by: Kevin Cann
The max effort method is the best method to build absolute strength. This is undeniable due to the specificity of heavy singles for the sport of powerlifting. The max effort method builds the inter and intra muscular coordination, technical efficiency at heavy weights, and psychological strength. It teaches lifters how to compete.
The Bulgarian sports scientist, Angel Spassov, admits that the max effort method comes with a higher injury risk and may shorten careers, but he believes it is the only way to develop ultra-high performance. Zatsiorsky states that the Russians believed that training the muscles and the nervous system together is more beneficial than the max effort method alone.
The disagreement between the Bulgarians and the Russians with how often to utilize the max effort method has been the battle in my mind over the last couple of years. How important is hypertrophy work?
I do not think a 1 to 1 tradeoff of greater cross sectional area of a muscle to strength development is necessarily true. The research is all correlation, and there is quite a bit of research that shows that size does not matter for strength.
All of the old time lifters preach the importance of hypertrophy work. Just because the research doesn’t prove it to be important doesn’t mean that it is not important. There is something to it.
In Russia and Bulgaria, they have systems in place for long term athletic development. Early on in these systems the very young athletes learn the technique and perform a lot of GPP work. These athletes are eased through the system like this until they are teenagers. At this point the sport specific work will increase and the GPP work will begin to decrease.
In many cases these lifters have a decade of building that foundation of GPP work. This is very important and helps us understand the importance of hypertrophy work. This does help build muscle on younger athletes. Muscle mass is important if there is a deficit there and the lifter needs to fill out a weight class. In Russia they have ideal weights based off of the height of the athlete.
That foundation of GPP to build long term successful athletes extends far beyond building hypertrophy. All of that GPP work builds physiological adaptations to put more work, and heavier work, on top of later. It also allows the athletes to hold onto the development of maximal strength longer.
The Russian weight lifters in the Dynamo club had tremendous long term success in the sport. The Bulgarians had tremendous success, but not the same long term success. This was a tradeoff that Angel Spassov felt was worth it.
Weight lifters such as Rudolf Plukfelder won a gold at 36 years old, Vasily Alekseyev won gold at 34 years old, Arkady Vorobyov won gold at 36 years old, and all of these lifters competed in multiple Olympic Games. This is very impressive as the peak age for weightlifting is thought to be in the mid 20s.
The peak age for powerlifting is thought to be in the mid 30s. However, we very rarely see lifters participate in the sport for more than 5 years. They tend to come and go very quickly. Part of this may be due to a lack of long term plan that yields consistent results over the long term.
American coaches seem to ignore these longer term plan in favor for these sprint methods of getting stronger. Beginner lifters are given volumes that far exceed the recommendations of the research performed for over 30 years by Soviet sports scientists.
The ones with a higher starting point and good genetics do very well under these programs. They come into the sport and are very competitive at the world level in a very short amount of time. However, like I said, this very seldom lasts for an extended period of time.
All of this stimulus tends to be thrown onto a very weak base. The Russians build that base over multiple years, but we tend to ignore that in favor of a 6 to 8 week block of building a base. This really is not enough time.
The Greeks have an abbreviated model to build a base that lasts 2 to 3 years. Something like this would be more appropriate here in America. However, we are the land of reality TV and want results yesterday. If that lifter won a world championship in 3 years, I could run the same program and do the same.
This almost never works out and may be another contributing factor to the short lifespans of American lifters in the sport. Our research tends to be on weak or untrained participants for very short periods of time. This can lead to a lot of misinformation and a lack of understanding of long term strength development.
So, how do we implement the max effort method with lifters that have very little foundations or athletic experience? When you look at Westside, it is a blending of multiple methods in the same training week. We can do the same thing, but just extend it out over a longer period of time.
The Russians determined that there was a total amount of work that needed to be completed in training to have success in both the long term and the short term and the max effort lifts will be more beneficial to the elite lifters with a solid foundation. This doesn’t mean that newer lifters should not use this method. They just need to use it appropriately.
This is why we have phases of training. Each phase lasts 4 to 8 weeks. Over a calendar year we will get approximately 80 max effort lifts, not including competitions. Westside, if they run the max effort days for 2 days each training week for an entire year, they would execute 104 max effort lifts. This is more than we will, but they are more elite than us and that is more appropriate for them.
In phase 3 we will begin to get mx effort lifts every week as this phase is our competition cycle. The volumes will fluctuate, but always stay within a given range. Phase 1 and 3 will have volumes that are a bit lower than phase 2, but they will hit a minimal effective dose. The GPP stays in year round and starts high in phase 1, drops to a minimum in phase 2, and rises back up in phase 3 to offset some of the volume lost by increasing max effort attempts.
Max effort work makes up a very small portion of our overall program. We average roughly 6,000 lifts per year of 70% or higher. If we have 3 lifts of 90% or more on every max effort day, that puts our total volume of 90% or higher at 4% of our total lifts. In reality, lifts at 90% or more make up 2% to 4% of our total volume. The majority of the work is completed between 70% and 80% of 1RM.