How We Use the Maximum Effort Method

Written by: Kevin Cann


Zatsiorsky states in The Science and Practice of Strength Training That the maximal effort method is the act of lifting a maximal load against maximal resistance.  This method, according to Zatsiorsky, is best for improving the intramuscular and intermuscular coordination to improve maximal strength.


He is basically saying that lifting heavy is best to lift heavy due to the adaptations of the muscles and the central nervous system.  Any lift taken between 90% and 100% of one rep max will fall into this category.


The problem with frequently hitting repetitions above 90% in training is that it can lead to psychological burnout and the risk of injury becomes higher.  However, training at 90% and greater has a number of positive benefits as well.


One way in which heavier weights can improve strength is through rate coding and muscle fiber recruitment.  Rate coding is basically how fast your body can recruit muscle fibers.  The faster it can fire or the more “twitches” the fibers can perform in a given time period, the more force you will produce.


These are neurological adaptations that occur between 90% and 100% of 1RM, according to Zatsiorsky.  With that said, you do not need to work up to 100% in the gym to get these adaptations.  We need to keep in mind that the majority of this research is based off of elite Russian weightlifters, not powerlifters of various abilities.


We have been very successful touching these weights very rarely.  We improve squats better than any of the three lifts as a group by taking heavy doubles and triples between 80% and 88% of one rep max.  Also, you get no more of a training stimulus in terms of rate coding at 90% compared to 100% and due to exertion load the 2nd or 3rd repetition at 85% will be more difficult than a single at 90%.  However, I do believe there are still benefits to lifting heavier weights more frequently, which I will get to.


The inter and intramuscular coordination gets improved when we practice the lifts with lighter weights and higher repetitions.  We want a combination of these 2 elements to put us in the best position possible to lift the most weight.


Most programs try to utilize these principles in their methods.  However, this tends to be where methods begin to differ.  Westside maxes out 2 days per week in the gym while other programs very rarely ever touch weights above 90%.


My program with Boris Sheiko lies somewhere in the middle.  I touch 90% or greater on the deadlift and bench press, but these are usually off blocks or using a board or Slingshot.  I very rarely touch these weights in the competition lifts themselves.


The longer I spend coaching this sport, the more my philosophy on certain things changes.  I believe a coaching philosophy is something that is always being adapted based upon self-reflection and analysis of lifters.


Upon the analysis of our club’s performances, and looking over their programs, I determined that we needed to lift heavier more often.  Even though, as I stated before, I am not sure there is more to gain physiologically from lifting 90% compared to 85% to 88%.  I think the biggest gains will be psychological.


Oftentimes when my lifters do not touch weights at 90% or above they begin to lose confidence when they approach a test day before competition.  The thoughts of “I haven’t touched more than 85% in my lifts, how will I hit a new PR?” begins to creep in.  This can lead to a poor performance.


To counter act those negative thoughts we will take 90% to 92% more often in the peaking blocks as competition draws near.  However, in the prep blocks we will go about our training a bit differently.


Instead of taking the competition lifts at 90% or higher, we will take heavy singles between 80% and 88% of one rep max of the chosen variation for that lifter.  We use variations to bring up weak positions of the lift.  We very rarely do these variations above 75%.  Variations make the lift more difficult, so the overall stress is heavier than 75% so there is carryover to strength improvements here.


We will begin to stress these variations between 80% and 85% more frequently.  A pause squat with this weight will be very difficult and the stress will be similar to 90% or greater being on the bar.  As the meet draws near we will take the heavy singles in the competition lifts themselves.


Currently this may look like the following:


2 sec Pause Squat 50%x3, 60%x3, 70%x3, 75% 5×2


Moving forward it will look like the following:


2 sec Pause Squat 50%x3, 60%x3, 70%x3, 75% 2×2, 80% 2×1, 75% 2×2-This may get up to 80% 2×2 or 85% for singles in the same variation.


The number of lifts will not change much, but some will just get a bit heavier.  These variations progress through the program for 3 to 6 weeks typically.  The repetition work will come in the second squat session of the same day and/or the following squat training day.


I have been using these changes for a few weeks now and I really like what I am seeing.  80% for pauses looks difficult for a week or 2, but then we start to see some really good progress.  The “getting after” the weights have some carryover to the main lifts as well and overall training mentality.  I see far less “grooving” of the weights and more aggressive lifting, which I like.


Checkout Kevin’s e-book “Precision Powerlifting Systems” here


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