Written by: Kevin Cann
We all know volume is important to getting stronger. For the most part, we all know that we need to progress training in a way where volume increases over time to get stronger. However, it is not as simple as it seems.
Even though increasing volume is the answer to getting stronger, it can also be a poison to the athlete. You see, too much volume too quickly and the athlete can quickly become overtrained and injury risk increases.
We can increase volume by doing more sets and reps, or by increasing the weight we are using for given sets and reps. Oftentimes you will see programs progress in a linear fashion in one of these ways. However, I am going to tell you that it is not as simple as increasing volume on a weekly basis.
How long can you actually do that? At some point the athlete will hit a ceiling and anything more can increase injury risk. This can probably yield good results for a couple of years even before it becomes a problem. But it will become a problem in time.
The goal is to increase the athlete’s workload over their lifetime in the sport. I think we often overlook the bigger picture here. This is a sport that you can compete in throughout your lifetime if you are smart about it.
I use every meet as an opportunity to reset training volumes with my athletes. I use the test and taper that was taught to me by my coach, Boris Sheiko. This test and taper has been successful for all athletes regardless of skill level, gender, and bodyweight. I do make small adjustments for women and men under 200lbs compared to men over 200lbs, but it is minimal in the differences.
We test 17-22 days out from competition. Day 1 we test squat and bench and day 2 we test deadlifts after some bench press. That week we perform a normal training load, usually 4 days for my athletes.
The next week there are 3 days of training with significant decreases in volume. We may take 3 singles of squats at 80% or 85% (depending on the circumstances above) on day 1 and then 3 singles on day 3 at 75%. The following week there are only 2 training days. Squats might be a 3×2 at 70% on day 2.
I do not see the need to keep volume high leading up to a competition. Strength is easily maintained for a prolonged period of time and we want the athlete to dissipate as much fatigue as possible so that they feel fresh for the competition. This is the idea behind supercompensation.
This 2-week period sees a massive reduction in training volume. The week after the competition is also lighter. This decreases the athlete’s work capacity. We basically, just had a whole block of lighter workloads.
We cannot just jump right back into training at this point. We need to gradually increase the athlete’s preparedness for training. Many programs here will use higher rep sets of 10 and more to build work capacity. This is fine for their systems. However, it is not what I am looking to do.
I am heavily influenced by my coach, Boris Sheiko, and the recommendations that he has laid out. I heard early in my career somewhere to mimic those that have done it well, understand it, and then make the adjustments to make it your own. This has been my path the last 2.5 years under him as a coach.
I am looking to hit certain volumes at certain average intensities. We also very rarely go over 6 reps in training. This is due to exertion load; how hard each rep actually is. In a set of 10, the first few reps are very easy and there is not adequate effort to get the lifter stronger in those reps. Perhaps the last 3 reps yield a positive training effect for strength.
According to the research 3-6 reps with 1-2 reps in reserve is ideal for strength gains. I need to prepare my athletes to hit those volumes with that much effort or exertion load. This type of training is very difficult and must be done in a way that keeps the athlete as safe as possible.
The inability to understand these concepts is where I feel a lot of people get hurt trying to mimic what Sheiko does. It is more complex than people know. It is also why hiring a full time powerlifting coach is important. They should understand these concepts.
I want training to have significant effort, but after a meet volume needs to be increased for us to even get there. This is where variations come into play. Day 3 after a meet I will have an athlete perform squats at 75% for 4 sets of 3. This is to just move around and recover a bit from the competition.
The following week I may have them perform squats with chains at 70% for 4 sets of 4 reps. The chains deload weight at the more difficult positions of the squat which makes it easier for the athlete to recover. They also get to feel heavier weight at the top. The effort to move this weight is more than would be required without the chains. This is how we are starting to build the exertion load backup for the athlete.
For Nick Santangelo, who squats 615lbs at 205lbs bodyweight, would get 5,535lbs of volume on week 1 day 3 after the meet. The following week he gets 6,888lbs of squat volume plus the chains. I do not count the chain weight on volume lifted here.
The following week, Nick has high bar squats at 75% for 4 sets of 2 reps. High bar increases his effort for these repetitions while keeping training volume where it needs to be. After bench, he came back to 80% squats for 4 sets of 2 reps. These were done low bar. However, the fatigue from earlier squats and bench make the effort greater for these repetitions. The total volume of this day is 7,626lbs.
This will continue to increase until total squat volume is around 30,000lbs for a given week. We squat twice per week, and the examples given were only 1 day to make it easier to understand. It takes Nick about 4 weeks to work back into that range, maybe more.
Once we get the volumes back to where they need to be, we will maintain that volume for a period of time. This might be 2-3 weeks. Only then will we increase volume. When we increase volume, we will usually only increase the weekly workload in 1-2 weeks out of a 4-week block. The other weeks will be at baseline or even slightly below.
This allows the athlete to recover. This also increases my 4-week rolling average of volume. This is the chronic workload. Every block after will look like this one with 1-2 weeks above baseline and the others at or below. We go slightly above and slightly below so that we do not lose strength by undertraining and do not risk injury by overtraining. This is how we get steady progress over time.
I like to lift heavy with my athletes. That is the name of the game. However, we need to prepare them for this as well. Variations can increase the effort of the lifts without increasing workloads to unsafe numbers.
Variations however, need to be selected based upon the athlete’s weaknesses. Once the variation is chosen I like to keep it in the program for a period of time and progress it up to heavy singles. I also like to progress training up to heavy triples in the comp lifts. We cannot do both at the same time.
Away from a meet I will push the variations first. Usually, the athlete struggles off the bat, but has beginner gains in the variation. During this time, they may be taking 80% for triples on one of the days for the comp lift itself. Once we push that variation enough, I will have the athlete push triples on the comp lift.
They will take a heavy triple with 1-2 reps in reserve in the comp lift. This becomes their new 80% moving forward. This is very heavy training. The other squat day must be a lighter day for the athlete to recover. Here we will use lighter variations to just work on technique stuff. As the new 80% becomes easier, we will push the next variation.
As a meet draws near the variations begin to take a back seat while the heavy triples turn into heavy doubles and singles up to the test and taper. Doing it this way we have managed to take 90% for 3 sets of 3 reps and even hit PRs for very fast singles before a test. We have done this all while missing zero training days due to injury.
It has only been about 5 months that we have been doing this, but that is a good sign for me. I will continue to monitor each athlete’s ACWR and exertion loads in training. As each progresses we can safely increase training.