Written by: Kevin Cann
I had a really good conversation with the youngest member of our team this past weekend. She had reached out asking for more work because she doesn’t feel sore or tired after training days in the gym. She also said that the weights feel really easy sometimes and feels she should be doing more.
For the sake of this article we will name her Amanda. Amanda is a very coachable lifter and she is very eager to learn. This was not a case of ego making her want to increase weight. Amanda has just turned 20 years and has only been lifting with me since February. She would be rated as a class 3 (novice) lifter by total and weight class.
We had a very good conversation that ended with me sending her lots of summer reading to do. I truly love when lifters want to learn more, so I was happy to dig out all of this stuff. I also believe Amanda’s questions are very common amongst the powerlifting community, so I think this is a great topic to discuss.
Amanda is a very new lifter and even though the weights feel light there are some technical things we need to work on. Her squat for one has a lot of excessive horizontal bar movement and each repetition looks different. I say to all of my lifters that you earn the right to lift more weight. These issues need to be cleared up before Amanda will be allowed to lift more weights.
There are 2 trains of thought out there in the powerlifting world. Technique is very important being one of them and the other is that technique is not that important as long as you are safe and lifting within the rules of competition. Due to Boris Sheiko being my coach, I fall on the side of technique being very important. However, as we get closer to a meet I accept the lifter’s technique for what it is at the time and we will begin to push heavier weights.
Neither is right or wrong as both ways have gotten people incredibly strong. I view this as the Eastern European way of training versus the American way. Coaches like Sheiko and Dietmar Wolf utilize a lot of submaximal volume to enhance the technique of the lifter and very rarely go over 85%. While, many successful American coaches will have their athletes lift 90% or more much more frequently.
The Eastern Europeans goal in training is to enhance the neuromuscular coordination of the movements. This is a fancy word for technique. However, the more coordinated our movements the greater our performance will be. We want every repetition in training to look the same for this reason.
This is why we very rarely go over 85% in training. Weights above 85% tend to begin to breakdown. Again, we want every repetition to look the same. This builds a stable and strong movement pattern (enhancing neuromuscular coordination). If every repetition looks different, we have then trained many different movement patterns.
You can get strong with poor technique. Lifting at higher intensities can supply enough of a training stimulus to get you stronger with less than optimal technique. Programs like this can get you really strong really fast as well. However, they are risky in both the short and long term for the lifter in my opinion.
We can achieve that heavier training stimulus through the exertion load of the training program. Exertion load is basically how difficult each repetition is. The second or third repetition of 85% is going to be more difficult than singles at 90%, but typically with greater technical efficiency.
How we manipulate the accumulated fatigue within the program can also increase the effort of repetitions. The one rep max is constantly changing from day to day. However, our percentages are based off of a single number.
If we start the week off with a difficult training day, this will lower the training max on other training days within that week. Performing repetitions at 75% with accumulated fatigue actually makes 75% more difficult. Typically, in these situations the lifter could not hit 100% of 1RM due to being tired. This raises the effort of 75% because on that day it may be 80% or even higher. However, the weights are light enough to allow the lifter to maintain proper technique.
We need to alternate high load, medium load, and small load days and weeks because of this accumulated fatigue. This helps keep the athlete healthy and making steady progress. Training can’t be too hard or too easy as both of these come with risks to performance and injury.
Training cannot increase too quickly as well. I have written many times about the ACWR (acute chronic work ratio). If we progress training too quickly we can run into some unwanted issues. Powerlifting is a sport that the lifter should be able to do over their lifetime and the long term needs to be part of the planning.
We need the correct volumes, intensities, and variations to enhance the skill level of the athlete. If we do too much volume or intensity we will see a breakdown in technique. Variations should be used to correct any technique issues the coach sees.
Variations give the lifter a problem to solve within the competition movement. This enhances their neuromuscular coordination of that movement. Breakdowns are not necessarily due to weak muscles, but instead a lack of neuromuscular coordination or skill within that movement pattern. This is how we build a skill.
Developing as a powerlifter is not always about the weight on the bar. It is about having a plan to stay as healthy as possible while steadily increasing. It is about developing a skill. Not only are the lifts a skill, but strength in and of itself is a skill. View training as skill development instead of being worried what to put on Instagram.
If you train in the right positions with the right volumes for a prolonged period of time, you will have a much higher total at the end of your career then just putting more weight on the bar when you are not ready for it and flaming out after a few years.
I know it is not easy as I even struggle with this but be patient. If you have been training for less than 5 years this is literally just the start of your strength journey. Do not rush things, be patient and embrace the grind.