7 Years: From Sheiko to Conjugate

Written by: Kevin Cann

This marks my 7-year anniversary of coaching powerlifting.  Around this time in 2015 I took a job at a local gym with a strong reputation and culture for strongman and powerlifting.  I had no idea how to really get people strong until I started working here.  I also never realized how much detail goes into the big 3 lifts.

I would meet Boris Sheiko, the legendary Russian coach a few months later and began working with him in the fall of 2015.  Before we get there, lets rewind.  I decided to start lifting with the other staff members, many of which were multiply powerlifters.  My first ever squat day with them I did SSB box squats with front facing bands.

We lifted out of a monolift, and all took turns.  There was a real team aspect to this training day with everyone rotating from running the rack, to loading bars, and then to lifting.  It didn’t matter how much anyone lifted, we all trained together.  It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot.

After I met Sheiko I decided to try what he was discussing.  When he was discussing his methods, it all really resonated with me with what he was saying and a few months earlier I had a conversation with Fred Hatfiled who said that the Russians kept all the good stuff to themselves.  This really piqued my curiosity, and I was eager to learn more.

I wrote my own Sheiko blocks based off the information he gave at the seminar.  As my first meet in October of 2015 drew near, I reached out to him because I was confused on how to program a competition cycle.  I sent him my training and he made some adjustments to it.  I then proceeded to ask him if he would be willing to coach me and he would for the next 3 years.

I learned quite a bit about technique and planning training over this period.  However, this is all that I knew.  I was ignorant at this time and scoffed at other training styles.  Not so much publicly, but more in private.  The problem was is I did not really understand training principles, but only planning training in a very specific way and the reasons behind doing it that way.

I convinced an intern to be a guinea pig and trained some friends for the first year or so.  After that point the team began to grow.  We had a lot of success at this time, so this led to even more growth.  As the team grew larger, I began to see some issues with my abilities as a coach.

Lifters would be getting nervous before testing maxes and competitions would become very stressful for them.  The only way that I knew how to address this was taking heavy singles.  This would prove to be very difficult for a higher volume, higher frequency training plan.

The next chapter in my coaching journey would be on understanding fatigue.  How fatiguing really is lifting weights?  Athletes do it on top of their daily sports practice right?  Well, it turns out doing the weights as a sport is very different than it is training for other sports, but in a very different way. 

We saw success from increasing intensity, so more must be better right?  Then we increased the volume of higher intense work and again results continued to grow.  However, more nagging issues were beginning to pile up and the lifters were getting slower with a decrease in technical execution.

We were not using percentages anymore, but only high RPEs for training.  Training loads were extremely variable, but always towards the top end of strength for the daily rep range.  At this point I was lost.  Sheiko came back to America, but before he visited us, he stopped at Westside and met Louiie.

When he came to the gym, I was at I had asked him about the trip and what the major differences between him and Louie were.  He had great respect for Louie and said the difference was in where they put their priorities.  Louie prioritizes strength and Sheiko prioritized technique.  This really resonated with me.  They each followed the same methods but planned them out differently based off of their own individual perspectives.

Sheiko’s lifters in Russia compete frequently, up to 4 to 6 times per year.  The max effort method is in there more than people think.  He planned his volume differently and had more lift volume versus Louie getting volume from GPP.  Sheiko’s lifters came through the Dynamo Club schools so they had strong GPP backgrounds by the time they got to his programs.  Louie had to make up for lost time and build it more concurrently.  The programs were very similar, but different when the entire career of the athlete was looked at.

This really got me thinking.  Can we actually do both?  Can we build technique and strength simultaneously by varying the priority of each day?  I believed that we could, but in order for me to understand this I decided to take a year of training singles.

I had got into equipment in the late summer of 2019, and I was fresh off my first equipped meet in January of 2020 so I decided to take these singles in equipment to make them as taxing as possible so that I could really understand recovery.  I learned a lot about rotating variations and how to strategically plan heavy singles.

They were not very physically taxing.  In fact, physically I felt great, and training was actually a lot of fun. However, my performances were all over the place and I had a hard time getting “up” for bigger lifts.  I would then jack up the heavy metal, huff caps, and do everything to get “up” even more, but this would lead to even greater variability in my performances.

Due to covid, I had more time at home, so I was rereading Supertraining, Science and Practices, the Book of Methods, and others.  I realized that I understood this stuff much differently now that I had more experience doing them in the gym.

I took what I learned from my experiences from Sheiko to my year of singles, checked them against the fundamental knowledge of developing strength, and built out what we have today.  Conservative max effort week 1, reps of that variation week 2, beat week 1 on week 3, week 4 of 80% competition lifts and only 3 days instead of 4.

This applied the high, medium, and low training stress days that Sheiko laid out.  I just broke them up between high stress volume and high psychological stress.  Giving a day off every 4th week is similar to how Sheiko performs his deloads, I just pulled back more aggressively that week, which actually is in line with how he programs high, medium, and low stress training weeks.

This would be considered a 3-1 approach in Sheiko’s system, where week 3 is the highest stress, and week 1 is the second highest.  This was a common block theme for me when I was a student of his.  We just used greater variation and more max effort work.  The greater variation is necessary to get that many singles.  Nothing builds top end strength better than the max effort method too.

We now phase our training exactly like the Dynamo Weightlifting Club.  This is like Sheiko’s prep and comp cycle format, but with max effort variations starting with higher variation and leading into more specific training closer to a competition.  Just like the Dynamo Club.

I wanted to learn more about Westside, so I began to call Louie occasionally to ask questions.  He was also willing to chat and would literally chat until I said I had to go.  I ended up going to Westside to train for a few days, hangout, and talk training with Louie.

We discussed Sheiko and how Sheiko convinced him to increase deadlift volume.  We discussed the Dynamo Club, history of the sport, and lifting in general.  I learned so much in this weekend.  The biggest takeaway was understanding GPP better and how to program it as well as the emphasis that is needed by the lifter in training.  They need to bring serious effort to it.

From there it is just gaining more experience so I can better understand exercise selection to attack weaknesses.  This is really hard to do.  I am running a Westside template to learn how to do that better.  It is easy to just program competition lifts by adjusting volumes and intensities.  It is extremely basic stuff.

It is what I did in the beginning, and it worked well.  However, many of my lifters have been with me through most of this journey.  As the lifter advances, the coach needs to advance at a more rapid rate so that the lifter can continue to see progress.  My lifters still get more volume of the lifts than I give myself now because I do not possess the same skill as Louie to prescribe an exercise to really get a weakness with a lot of bang for my buck.  I can do it in waves but need to improve here.

As a lifter matures, they need more volume in special exercises and less in the competition lifts.  At some point, weaknesses will lead to poor performance and/or injuries.  I need to be on point so that these lifters can continue to improve.  Louie was so good at this he created machines to get them stronger.  That is incredible to me.

It is crazy that it has been 7 years so far.  It has gone by fast.  Lots of ups and downs for sure but wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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