The Dichotomies of Training Intensities

Written by: Kevin Cann

When I first started coaching, this was the area of programming that interested me the most.  I think that it interested me the most, because the biggest question that I think every coach has is “Where do I start?”

I was always confused as where to start for volumes and intensities.  We have had this general guidelines laid out in many textbooks, but they were not directed at the competitive strength athlete.  I would look at the templates online and try to see what all of the popular coaches were doing.  This oftentimes becomes the starting point.

I feel as inexperienced we coaches; we attempt to mimic those that seem to be more successful than we are.  I do not see the harm in this.  This gives each coach a starting point and as long as they pay attention, over time they will figure stuff out for themselves and their lifters.

I was fortunate enough to have Boris Sheiko as my coach in the beginning of my career.  I learned where to start with each of my lifters.  He had recommended average intensities and number of lifts for each lifter that was based off of the Russian classification chart.  This chart categorized lifters by their gender, weight, and total.  Based off of that categorization, the lifter would be given a recommended number of lifts and average intensity.   

Managing stress was very important to Sheiko.  He would often emphasize this.  The days were split up into high, medium, and low stress training days.  The high stress training days were the stimulus to drive adaptation, the medium stress days were training days that the lifter could recover from in about 24 hours that helped maintain adaptations, and the low stress training days were for recovery. 

The program needed to be individualized so that they get enough high stress days to force adaptation and enough medium to low stress training days to recover.  The goal is to keep the athlete healthy and slow and steady progress over a long time period.

As the lifter would increase in total and enter into new classifications, the volumes would change.  In three years of working with Sheiko, my number of lifts and average intensities remained pretty steady.  My total tonnage would increase as I was getting stronger because 70% of 1RM was slowly increasing in absolute loads.

I mimicked this for a long time and saw how it played out with Precision Powerlifting Systems.  The problem was that I cannot be a great version of Boris Sheiko and my lifters are not his lifters.  His system is his own thought process.  I would never be able to mimic it to the same levels of success as he had.

I held onto a lot of the pieces from his system for a long time.  In hindsight I should have held onto the general ideas, but not the actual way in which they were laid out.  What I failed to understand is that the coach and the lifter gives context to volumes and intensities.  

In Sheiko’s programs he gave the context to high stress, medium stress, and low stress training days.  This was based off of total workload in a given training session.  He developed these ideas from over 40n years of coaching the sport at a high level.

I have found it is not so black and white.  Sheiko focuses on technical efficiency as the main focus of his programs.  This means lots of sets and less reps within those sets.  This lowers the RPE of those sets and allows the lifter to recover enough to train with higher frequencies.

I found that we needed higher intensities to get stronger as a group.  The lifters I was coaching had an inability to strain on lifts and the technical breakdowns were still occurring at heavier weights.  This is by no means a dig on Sheiko.  This is a dig on my abilities to coach his programs.  

My lifters were also different than what he had on the Russian National Team.  I had lifters with very little experience, and they were in their twenties.  Russian 20 year old lifters had been lifting for 10 to 12 years by that point.  My lifters were at the age of mature lifters in Russia, but they had a beginner’s mindset.  Many were afraid of the heavier weights.

This fear of heavier does go away after some experience, but that experience needs to be from lifting heavier weights.  Sheiko had his groups compete 4 to 6 times per year.  All of these competitions were not there to hit all-time PRs, but they would take 90-95% of 1RM at them in front of the judges.

This means that they were going to near max or maximal weights every 2 to 3 months.  In the comp cycle leading up to the competitions they would touch 90% of 1RM for some singles on each lift as well before they actually tested their lifts.  The tests would be controlled by the coach, but they could range from 90% to 105%, depending on the importance of the competition and where the athlete was in training.

This means that every 2-3 months the focus on the training moved to heavier weights.  The pre cycles would be 4 to 12 weeks and the comp cycles were usually 4 weeks in length.  The comp cycles include the test and taper before a competition.

When you look at the training picture from a macroscopic view, you see an interesting picture.  The programs were lots of sets and lower reps with low RPEs, or they were competitions and tests.  The actual workload dictated the amount of stress on a given day.  There were not many attempts taken in the intermediate ranges.

For example, we may hit 80% for 4 sets of 2 or 3 reps.  This is a weight that most lifters can hit for 5 to 6 reps on average.  As you get used to the weights, they become easier as well.  Week 1 in a program was much harder than week 10.

I learned that my liters needed more exposures to heavier weights because oftentimes those tests would not go well, and those numbers would dictate what we’re putting on the bar at a competition.

Many lifters would tell me they get anxiety leading into a test.  This led to poor performance, and there was no way they were going to be able to display their true strength on the platform after missing in the gym due to a lack of confidence.  This would lead to a lot of frustration.

I still believe that technique is the most important aspect of training.  I needed to discover a way to get more exposures to heavy weights without disregarding technique.  This is where the Dynamic Systems Theory approach came into play.  I write extensively about that on this blog and on Boston’s Strongcast podcast.  My Patreon channel goes into great detail as well (

We use variations of the lifts that will punish inefficient technique and teach more efficient ways to complete the task for max effort singles.  This gives regular exposure to near maximal weights, teaches technique, and these drill usually max out around 85% to 92% of 1RM.  I do feel there is something to the absolute loads on the bar in terms of recovery.

A lifter can max out between 85% and 92% consistently, oftentimes hitting the same numbers on different variations week to week.  However, they are unlikely able to do this with weights that are closer to 1RM. Changing the exercises every 3 weeks helps to keep progress moving forward as well.

The lifters are told to leave 5 to 10lbs on the bar for the following week.  If it is a true RPE 10, we will perform rep work the following week.  This rep work is very Sheiko-esque.  They will still have backdowns on those days as well.  A lifter on a day of rep work in place of max effort may have 8 to 10 total sets.  This would be a high stress training day in Sheiko’s programs.

The coach needs to understand the systems that are coming under the stress and the recovery of each system.  Many times we can train one system while another is recovering.  A max effort day comes with greater psychological arousal.  There is greater mental fatigue here.  A day with 8 to 10 sets of work comes at a greater physiological cost, but the psychological pieces can recover.

Our day 3 tends to have far less overall work and day 4 tends to be very light, but quite a bit of volume.  This load variation is important to the training week and the quality of each training day.  If there are no max effort lifts, the RPEs recorded are generally between 5 and 7.  

This high/low approach to training was popularized by the great track coach, Charlie Francis.  He emphasized the quality of each training session.  He also made an analogy of the CNS to gym lights.  They spend more energy turning them on and off than just leaving them on due to the need to be ramped up.  He believed this ramping up process is actually what causes the most fatigue.

Everything has its purpose.  Our heavy singles are to teach strain, to teach technique under heavier loads, and to train the mind to overcome fear and doubt.  The lighter weights are there to teach technical efficiency through repetition and to build work capacity and conditioning for the sport.

These lighter weights do not need to be close to failure to accomplish that.  In fact, they probably work better being further away from failure.  Just as Sheiko learned through his experiences coaching.  More sets and less reps builds better technical efficiency.  This can be seen in Westside’s dynamic effort days as well.  Louie Simmons also uses that high low approach to training.

I think many coaches and lifters lose sight of the bigger picture.  I feel much of what I see on Instagram is the opposite.  Programs seem to be high volume, high frequency, and moderate to high intensity.  

Each day will be multiple sets of anywhere from 3 to 10 reps and the RPEs will look much higher than the lifter suggests based on the post.  It seems like every day these lifters are coming into the gym and straining through weights.  I will say that I see quite a bit in the other direction as well.  Lifters that never get any intensity in their training.

The lifters with too much intensity tend to get really strong really quick.  These often tend to be younger kids that do not have a tone of real life stress.  The ones not lifting with enough intensity just never get stronger.  

I would say those lifters lifting with higher volumes and higher intensities also get hurt much more frequently.  I would call these programs as living in those intermediate zones that other coaches have avoided.  Those intermediate zones come with a very high recovery cost and not necessarily the greatest stimulus for adaptation.

It is a lot of stimulus so lifters often utilizing these programs get very strong very fast.  The body is pretty amazing.  However, it seems to come at a long term cost.  We do not see many lifters that compete at a high level for 5 or more years.  

We may just be seeing this situation where lifters come in, they have a high starting point, throw a lot of stimulus at it, and do really well for a short period of time to only come crashing down at one point.  Now, this may not be the program, but just life in general.  As we get older, we get more responsibilities and our ability to recover changes.  This would require an adjustment to the program and to the coach’s philosophy.  This is difficult to do once a lifter and coach have had success doing something one way.

These programs often use very little variation as well.  This monotony in training may lead to staleness, boredom, and eventually quitting the sport.  There is also some strong evidence to suggest that monotony can be a risk factor for injury.  There are a lot of variables here and it is impossible to highlight one root cause.  It is probably unlikely that there is only one root cause as well.

I have found that utilizing heavy singles with max or near max weights and volume work at much lower intensities to provide us with the greatest training environment for steady progress and lower incidences of injury.  The number of max effort sessions is dictated by the individual and their ability to recover from the heavier work.  If they lack the recovery abilities than that becomes something we work on.

At the end of the day this sport is about having the mental and physical tools to lift the heaviest weight possible for one repetition.  There is a certain amount of specificity that needs to be trained to be good at it.  Too much or too little is never a good thing.

The coach needs to understand the role of each piece of training as well.  If it is not necessary to push the intensities, then don’t.  The bigger picture needs to be kept in the coach’s mind all of the time.

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