Deconstructing the Volume Paradigm

Written by: Kevin Cann

Powerlifting is filled with high frequency and high volume programs these days.  I think this stems to Dietmar Wolf and Boris Sheiko gaining popularity in America around the same time that raw powerlifting was starting to really blow up.  Mike Zourdos’ dissertation on daily undulated periodization also occurred around this time as well.  Making it “evidence based” to use this type of programming.

The thing about Wolf’s and Sheiko’s programs were they took recommended volumes, kept them the same, and stretched them out over more training days.  Wolf was higher frequency than Sheiko.  Each training day by itself never seemed like it was too difficult.

Sheiko would manipulate the daily volumes while keeping the weekly recommendations the same.  These daily volumes would vary in a way that would have some hard days, average days, and recovery days.  This allowed for adaptation and recovery.  I can’t speak to training under Wolf as I have only seen templates.

In 2021 this has morphed into a daily top single around 90% or even higher with a backdown sets immediately following the top single.  These backdowns I have seen as multiple sets of 6 at 80%.  With Sheiko, I never performed more than 3 reps with 80% in any of the lifts.  This was for technical execution, but also recovery.

This is being done using a higher frequency training structure.  These volumes at these intensities are well beyond what Sheiko and Wolf recommended to their national team lifters.  Somehow a 25 year old powerlifter of 5 years knows more than a Russian sports scientist and coach with over 50 years of experience.  This is a hard sell for me that this is the right way.

Now, I do want to make an argument for training in this manner.  Most lifters in America only last 3 to 5 years.  If the goal of the coach is to get the most out of them in this short period of time, I believe this manner of training may be best.  I think we see proof of that right in front of our eyes.  However, what if people decide to stick around longer?

Also, not everyone is destined to be a world champ.  So why risk injury and burnout to someone that is using sport to live a healthier lifestyle?  These are honest questions and I have no problem with someone attempting to see how much performance they can squeeze out of a lifter in a typical lifespan in the sport.

I do think that we can have both.  The Russians used recommended volumes for lifters.  If a lifter could not get past a certain point they were given a certificate and asked to leave the school.  These volumes are to make the best the absolute best.  There are a lot that get left behind.

Again, I have no problem with this.  The goal of these programs is to produce the highest level athletes.  Every sport does this.  Not everyone makes a high school team, or college team, or minor leagues, or professional.  Powerlifting here is no different.  Let’s face it, some people are just not very good.

I believe if the coach has a really strong understanding of strength development and skill acquisition, that a more targeted approach can be applied to training.  This more targeted approach can get better results with less.  The problem is that this takes a strong educational background mixed with a lot of experience.

Remember when I said that Sheiko was a sports scientist?  All of their coaches are.  By the time they are with a national team they come with a strong educational background and decades of experience.  This is not the case here.  In America, a 25 year old accountant or software engineer with access to the internet and a decent total is driving the information.

Instead of a targeted approach, it becomes more of throwing everything at a person and see if they get stronger.  You very rarely get a discussion of weaknesses as technique is “good enough as long as the rules of competition are followed.”  It then becomes all about volumes and intensities.

Yes, too much focus on technique where the lifter never adds bar weight is not a good strategy.  However, not focusing on perfecting technique, knowing it will never be perfect, is a mistake as well.  However, all that coaches know how to do to fix technique these days is throw some cues at them.

The lifter attempts to move in a way that the cue tells them and they struggle or lift less weight.  This misses a major piece of the puzzle.  The lifter needs to develop physical strength at those positions, and probably can’t do that from just performing the lifts.

Hear me out.  If a lifter is pitching forward in the squat due to static lower back strength, 70% pause squats will not fix it.  This is where a targeted approach, focused on fixing this issue needs to be implemented.

I was watching an old documentary last night titled the “Emperor of All Maladies.”  This documentary is about the history of cancer treatment.  They use drugs, chemo, radiation, and surgery to eradicate the cancer.  They attack it from as many angles as possible.  This made me think about programming.

In the example above, max effort box squat variations, an emphasis on SSB goodmornings, with the 70% pause squats will be much more effective at solving the problem.  It is not so much you just apply a pause where the person loses technique, and it fixes itself.  You need to really understand the biomechanics and how to develop those strengths and skills.  I believe that most coaches lack this knowledge so spreadsheets with numbers becomes the next best thing.

It is difficult to create these changes and it takes time.  Mindless repetitions will not do it either.  There is no magic formula in Excel that can take into account the lifter’s motivation, attention, and focus.  Also, in order for skills to be acquired there needs to be feedback.  You can’t just check a box.  

Technique does not need to be perfect, but there should be attention and focus to improving it at all times.  This makes practice more productive.  It teaches the athlete how to be aware and how to adjust when necessary.  These are important skills to have for the platform.  You never know when things are going to be a little off.

How much focus and attention a lifter brings to training is very individualized.  The distribution of training exercises needs to take this into account as well as the weaknesses of the lifter.  How much time do we spend on sport specific max effort work, or sport specific technique work?  How much of our energy should be devoted to building up physical weaknesses?  Should we focus more of our time there because the focus of the lifter decreases quickly and goodmornings require less attention to detail?  These are all important questions and there are many more that the coach needs to answer.

When the coach answers these questions, he needs to be committed to improving those pieces.  This is not a one block process.  This is a process that expands over multiple mesocycles.  If the low back is a weakness, you may dedicate an entire macrocycle to attacking it.  For us a macrocycle is 6 months.  IN the giant scheme of things this is not very long.

At the end of the day we need to move away from the idea that technique is “good enough” and load management is all that matters.  This is a very flawed and short sighted view of the training process. 

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The mission of Mass-Lift Powerlifting is to promote drug-free powerlifting competitions, training seminars, and fitness events throughout the country. Overall, our goal is to promote a healthy and active lifestyle that will encourage strength and fitness enthusiasts to compete at local, national and international level.