Periodization of Max Effort Work

Written by: Kevin Cann

People have a giant misunderstanding about what we do at Precision Powerlifting Systems.  I was mentioned on a podcast where the host said that “Kevin is just going through his Westside phase.”  He said it saying that every coach has gone through that phase.

Ironically, he was having this conversation with a 24 year old lifter, online programmer (not a coach), and aspiring actor who loves to prove that “Westside doesn’t work” with the use of emojis.  This is a great argument against a coach who literally has been lifting and coaching for more than twice this unsuccessful actor’s lifespan, but I digress.

We do not run Westside templates.  In fact, our programs are absolutely nothing like Westside’s besides the use of max effort work.  Ironically, the ones who love to criticize Westside, like the one I mentioned earlier, will use singles frequently in their program.  These singles are usually at 90% or even higher.  This is also the max effort method.  

In fact, heavy 1 to 3 reps is technically the max effort method.  Louie just believes that singles are better at building absolute strength.  He is not wrong here as science is in agreement with him.  However, if you are running a program with singles at around 90% and days with heavy doubles and triples to say an RPE 9, you are attempting to utilize the max effort method in your programs.

The Russians utilized the max effort method in their programs with singles at or above 90% of 1RM.  This percentage was based off of their best competition lifts.  65% of these max effort singles were between 90% and 92%, 20% of them were between 92% and 97%, and only 15% of the lifts above 90% were above 97%.  The total amount of work at or above 90% was   These reps made up no more than 7% of the total volume for the Russians.

The Bulgarians used a different approach.  Angel Spassov believed that max effort work came with a higher injury risk and shortened careers, but that it was the only way to develop ultra-high performance.

The Bulgrians used their training max, which was always lower than their competition max, to determine the loads on the bar.  They were not allowed any psychological arousal to handle these loads either, making the loads feel heavier, but having less of a recovery cost.  

Sports scientists realized that from 90% to 100% of maximal, there were differences displayed in the recruitment of motor units.  At these higher loads rate coding play the primary role in force production.  At more submaximal loads it is done through motor unit recruitment.  This is even more true in larger muscles.

Rate coding is the ability of the motor units to fire faster.  At those loads inter and intra muscular coordination is also higher.  However, we know that we cannot just max out all of the time as the psychological stress can lead to burnout, anxiety, and depression.

Louie added in a dynamic effort day to increase the firing rate of motor units, and alongside a lot of accessory work, to increase the overall mechanical work.  We need enough mechanical work to elicit gains in muscle mass as well as to bring up weaker areas.

In Russia, the main lift would be for 1 to 3 reps, the squat which requires less coordination and further removed from the main lift 2 to 7 reps, and other auxiliary lifts would be performed for 5 to 10 lifts.

This is a bit different for weightlifting obviously because the squat is a main lift in powerlifting.  The Russians used a lot of variation within the movements as the main lift.  Westside does this and so do we.  The secondary movement might be a goodmorning or straight knee deadlift where the reps would be 3 to 5, and our accessories I like to program for higher reps like 10 to 15.  I do sets of 50 myself of triceps press downs.

This all seems very similar to Westside, but where it changes is in our periodization of the max effort lifts and the program as a whole.  We do not run dynamic effort days like Westside does either.  Sometimes we do, but also, sometimes we do not.

I utilize the load management strategies that were taught to me by Boris Sheiko.  I have written about this “pulsing” approach previously that was developed by Arkady Vorobyove.  We get high, medium, and low stress training days throughout days, weeks, and moths of the training year.

Max effort is low mechanical work, but high psychological stress.  We can separate the physiological stress from the psychological stress to tax one while the other recovers.  There is systemic fatigue that will still build up and the coach needs to take this into consideration.  This is why every 4th week we have a low volume and moderate intensity week with an extra day of rest.

Louie had said to me at breakfast that every 4th week is a deload when they go back to the percentage that they started the wave with.  His pendulum waves go (this is with band tension) 80% week 1, 85% week 2, and 90% week 3.  On week 4 it goes back to 80%.  Gear and drugs definitely allow you to recover from more work.

With raw lifters that are not as motivated or skilled as the Westside lifters, I felt it was important to throw something a bit different in every 4th week to keep them healthy and fresh.  This seems to work very well for us.

Each phase of training has a different purpose.  These are ideas from block periodization that I took and placed them into our concurrent training plan.  Max effort lifts will adjust based off of the phase of training.

If we perform max effort lifts weekly, there leaves little chances for more repetition practice of the lifts themselves.  I do find this to be important.  Westside will do 50 lifts on their dynamic effort day.  They definitely get this volume in.  However, that day is a high physiological stress day.

With our programs a medium day is about 35 lifts.  10% to 20% more is a high stress day, and 10% to 20% less is a low stress day.  Any max effort work is high psychological stress.  With the way that Westside is set up it would go 2 high psychological stress days to start the week and 2 high physiological stress days to finish the week.  Raw lifters with less motivation, and no drugs, would struggle a bit here.  Beginner to intermediate level lifters need more practice within the lifts as well.

I utilize the pulsing method of loading as opposed to Louie’s pendulum wave.  This is how I individualize training.  The greater the well-being of the lifter, the more high stress days they get.  High stress days are for adaptation, medium stress to maintain, and low for recovery.  Some lifters just have a genetic ability to handle more lifts as well.

The Russians found that the majority of the work should be completed between 70% and 85% of 1RM.  They have recommendations of volumes for lifters of all levels.  These recommendations were discovered while studying thousands of athletes over 4 Olympic training periods.  That is a 16 year study.  Much better than some untrained college kids being looked at for 12 weeks.

Sheiko laid out his recommended volumes to me and they have always led to good success.  We make sure that we hit those volume marks.  He said that technique was the most important aspect of training and he followed the Principle of Dynamic Organization.

This principle states that the body will always look for a more efficient way to complete a task.  However, in order to find more efficient ways the body needs repetitions.  This is why the rep work and hitting those volume marks are so important.

Louie looks at training from a lens of force production and Sheiko looks at it from a lens of efficiency.  Both are important, and they both know that.  They just have different ways of addressing it.

We will repeat weeks over and over until the recovery and efficiency of the athlete catches up.  We do not just add weight for the sake of adding weight.  The weights need to mature and ripen before they can grow.

In phase 1 of training there only 4 max effort days in a 4 week period of time.  We do not have any heavy deadlifts during this phase.  Phase 2 we have 6 max effort days per 4 week training block with deadlifts coming into the mix, and phase 3 we get 10 max effort lifts in a 4 week block of training as a competition is drawing near.  The volumes will slide up and down, but always be within a given range and accessories run every week of the training year.

On weeks that we do not have max effort lifts, I will take a percentage from the previous week’s max effort and we will run sets and reps with it.  This could be a low, medium, or high physiological stress day based off of the well-being of the lifter and what number of lifts that we need to get in.

This is very different from what Westside does.  The majority of coaching plans utilize the max effort method, but it seems that the coaches are unaware of that.  It should be a requirement to know this stuff before you take someone’s money and call yourself a coach.

I am taking everything I have learned from being coached by the greats and having many conversations with top level coaches and lifters and putting it together for our own model of training.  This is a model of training that is very similar to the ones utilized by those calling it “trash” on the internet.  I see why they say ignorance is bliss.

The only major difference is that we actually analyze the lifts and attack weaknesses specifically.  You can’t just squat, bench press, and deadlift to get better at squat, bench press, and deadlift.  You need to identify the weakest part of the chain and address it specifically in training.  If you just adjust volumes and intensities, you write programs, you don’t coach.

Louie is a coach.  His ability to see things and give suggestions to fix it were unbelievable.  Sheiko is a coach for the same reasons.  He is also a sports scientist.  Put those Excel spreadsheets down and learn how to coach.  This is what people are paying for. 

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