The Submaximal Effort Method: My Thoughts from Dietmar Wolf’s Programs

Written by: Kevin Cann


I got my hands on some of Dietmar Wolf’s programs earlier this week, and after looking them over it got me thinking a bit.  These programs share many of the same principles as my coach, Boris Sheiko’s programs.


The volumes and the number of lifts is very similar for one.  The only difference is in the average relative intensity.  Dietmar’s programs seem to be much lighter in terms of average relative intensity than Sheiko’s.  However, the frequency of Dietmar’s programs is higher.


Dietmar has his lifters squat, bench, and deadlift every training session.  With Boris, I squat twice per week, bench 3 to 4 times per week, and deadlift twice per week.  By stretching out the volume over more days, Dietmar Wolf can actually decrease the relative intensity of each training day.


This is how the volumes and number of lifts stay pretty similar between the 2 programs.  A Norwegian study showed that stretching out the same volume over 6 days was more beneficial than the same volume over 3 days. There are some theories with protein synthesis and technique that make a little sense, but I actually think it might be something a tad different.


Both programs have led to great success for each of the national teams of their respected countries. Both utilize submaximal training methods within their programs.  You do not need to lift maximal weights in order to get stronger, even if they get more Instagram likes.


The high submaximal volumes build fatigue within the lifter.  Monday’s training builds fatigue for Wednesday, which builds fatigue for Friday, which builds fatigue for Saturday.  This actually makes the submaximal weights feel heavier and require greater effort to lift.  At the end of the day it is the effort that we are looking for.


It is important to have enough large load days to accumulate fatigue, medium load days to maintain, and lower load days for recovery.  This also applies on a weekly scale.  I use the acute chronic work ratio (ACWR) to monitor the athlete’s training volumes. Their 28-day average is their fitness or chronic workload and their current training week is their fitness or acute workload.


A ratio of 1.0 is baseline at that moment in time.  Anything above 1 is above baseline and below 1 is below baseline.  When the acute workload is greater than the chronic workload we are accumulating fatigue.  Other parameters such as how close to failure we take sets, and the novelty of new loads and exercises also induces fatigue.


This fatigue is what forces our body to adapt and to get stronger.  As a meet approaches we decrease training volumes to let fatigue dissipate.  This is how we realize our best results on the platform.


Keeping the weights at submaximal weights also allows technique to be consistent.  As we get up over 85% of 1RM and closer to failure on sets we start to see a deviation from optimal technique.


We want technique to be consistent from rep to rep.  This helps us build a stable movement pattern that is more likely to hold up under larger loads.  If our technique is inconsistent we are training multiple movement patterns.  In this scenario, the lifts are unlikely to hold up under larger loads because they are already broken down.


Research has shown that for maximal strength and hypertrophy gains we want the reps to between 3 and 6 with 1 to 2 reps left in reserve.  This is due to exertion load.  Exertion load is basically the effort behind each repetition.


Looking at Dietmar’s programs and average intensities I was curious as to how this would stack up.  I saw a very interesting concept that he utilizes.  That is with supersets.  There were supersets with bench and deadlifts that I noticed, but also between 2 intensities of the same lift.


For example, with 2 different intensities of high bar squats.  The lifter would first perform 3 repetitions of high bar squats at 62.5% and after 45-60 seconds would then perform a set of 6 repetitions at 55% of 1RM. Similar supersets were seen with block pulls and deadlifts as well.


This superset of squats was the 3rdtraining day of the week and came after high bar paused squats with wide stance on day 1, and deadlift supersets on day 2.  My guess is that these intensities are chosen based off of the effort of each of the repetitions.


Why not just do sets of 9? The reason is that the first few reps of the 9 would be very easy and not enough effort to lead to maximal strength adaptations.  The solution, do the first few reps at a higher percentage to yield a greater training affect and then drop the weight to finish off the volume.  The high bar makes the lift more difficult than 62.5% and 55% because the lifter is most likely used to a low bar squat.


The deadlift superset started with block pulls (5cm to 8cm and always conventional) for 4 reps at 67.5% and 45-60 seconds later the lifter performed competition deadlifts at 62.5% for sets of 5 repetitions.  These were performed after light high bar squats and paused bench press.


Same principles apply. The high bar squats and bench press, as well as the high bar wide stance squats day 1 accumulated fatigue for the lifter when they got here.  The blocks allow more weight to be lifted without as much stress on the back, making it easier for the lifter to recover.  This is most likely a means of performing high volume sets of the deadlift while keeping the lifter healthy.  With Boris I have never done sets higher than 4 reps on the deadlifts for a comparison.


Both programs utilize a lot of variations in the preparatory phase.  I know for Boris the variations are selected based upon the technical inefficiencies of the lifter.  Seems like for Dietmar he uses the same variations with everyone but gives them intensity intervals on each one to choose from.  Tough to speak on this portion of the programming for Wolf as I am not sure how the variations are selected.  However, they make up the majority of the lifts.  With Sheiko it is roughly 60% variations.


Dietmar’s variations tend to move away from the competition lifts more than Sheiko’s.  With Boris my variations are always competition bar placement and foot width, deadlift is always competition stance, and it is very rare that I am not doing bench press with my competition grip.  Dietmar tends to change all of those things in his variations.


Neither one of the programs hits 90% or higher very often.  Looks like for Dietmar it is only in peaking blocks before a competition. In my experiences with Sheiko, this is very similar.  It is submaximal training to build fatigue to force adaptation while accumulating a high level of skill within the lift.


Seeing these programs gives me confidence that we are doing things correctly.  It also puts some interesting thoughts in my head with some ideas moving forward.  We will see in time if they become a part of our everyday programs.



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