Effort in Training

Written by: Kevin Cann


I had a conversation with my coach, Jeremy Hartman, earlier this week.  It was mostly about how my training is going.  One of the things I told him that I liked about the program was the heavier sets.


He had mentioned his time at Westside and how they lift heavy often.  Westside has many faults in their programming for raw lifters, but there are some things that we can learn from them.


I think effort and mental toughness are the two biggest takeaways from a program like that.  I love taking singles with my lifters. However, we don’t max out.  We will work up to a single at around an RPE 9. We also do not do that every week. This may happen 1-2 times in a 4-week block and could be with a variation or the comp lift.


Lifting heavy builds confidence and mental toughness.  Most lifters that begin with me don’t understand what average training strain feels like.  They are capable of so much more than they think, and it is my job as a coach to show them that.


Most people come in and are scared of the squat.  Putting the right weight on the bar to get them to strain to their capabilities while not missing repetitions is critical to developing a lifter.  Through effort and coaching we build confidence and mental toughness.  This is often the reason my lifters get big jumps on their totals early on when working with me.


It is not necessarily the program.  It is hard to nail down a program that fits that lifter right away.  It is through teaching them the mental aspects of the sport while working hard.  Fixing technique issues goes a long way here as well.


However, the technique issues we tend to fix are bar placement, head position, and elbow position. With national level lifters that the technique is good enough and they have some experience to tolerate some higher volumes, they are putting 60-80lbs on their squats in a few months.


Emily went from a 230lb squat to 300lbs in 16 weeks

Doug went from a 336lb squat to a 420lb squat in 16 weeks

Danielle Nguyen went from a 235lb squat to a 305lb squat in a year

Mike Agius went from a 450lb squat to a 495lb squat in 20 weeks

Maytal went from a 300lb squat to 365lbs in 16 weeks

Mike Damico is taking his previous best squat for singles in training at a conservative RPE 9 in 12 weeks

Jess Ward has taken 315lbs for 3 sets of 4 and 325lbs for 4 sets of 3 in the squat when her max is 350lbs in 14 weeks


This list does not include the beginners.  I do not include them due to beginner gains.  Everyone included in that list is qualified or has competed at Nationals.  This list does not include Kerry Sachs, Nick Santangelo, and Dave Rocklage who are all ranked in the top 25 in the squat in the USAPL database for 2018, with Kerry being number 11.


When we talk about programming we always talk about volumes, average relative intensities, load management, and exercise selection.  We very rarely discuss the mental aspects of the sport, which are more important than many people think.  It is not all about mechanical stress.


Mechanical stress is extremely important and all of those things I listed matter, but we need to find a way to include the building of confidence and other mental aspects of the sport.  We can do this with effort.


Effort is an internal feeling.  What the lifter feels and what the coach sees can be very different.  There needs to be some middle ground reached here between the 2. Oftentimes the weight feels heavy to the lifter but looks easier to the coach.


These are the opportunities to add some weight to the bar.  It has to be enough weight to be harder, but not too much.  Missing a heavier weight can actually shatter their confidence. Although, I do think learning it is ok to miss repetitions is a valuable lesson as well in this I need to go 9 for 9 world.  However, we need to learn to miss the weight because it is too heavy not because we are scared.


Research shows us that rep ranges between 3 and 6 with 1 to 4 reps in reserve (RIR) are best for hypertrophy and strength.  Tim Gabbett also talks about “Training Smarter and Harder” in his research on the acute chronic work ratio (ACWR).


The ACWR is a monitoring tool for athlete readiness.  The chronic workload is the 28-day average for volumes and the acute workload is this week’s volume.  If we divide the chronic workload by the acute workload, we get a ratio.


A ratio between .80 and 1.30 is deemed the sweet spot.  This is the ratio that athletes tend to see a decreased risk of injury.  Training is protective against injury, but too much and we run the risk of increasing our risk.  That ratio allows us to get enough work, but not too much.


This ratio is important if we want to increase the effort of training.  I want training to be hard.  It builds physiologically strong lifters, but also mentally tough lifters. I like the top sets being at an RPE 8 and 9.


This could mean for variations, higher rep sets (between 4 and 6 reps), or singles in the comp lifts. No matter how we look at it, if last set RPE is the same, tonnage is the same, number of lifts are the same, and average relative intensities are the same we can get creative.  In this case a single at an RPE 9 with back off volumes of equal tonnage, and average intensities equal to a 5×5 at a LSRPE 9 is no different.  In fact, the single has some added benefits mentally for the lifter.


Our programs are moderate frequency, moderate volume, and high effort.  The more veteran the lifter, the more volume that they get. We earn the right to lift more weight. The ones that have been with me for a while get a lot of volume with a lot of effort, but they were preparing for that the past couple years of training.


How we organize that total tonnage, average intensities, and effort is where I get to be creative as a coach.  Variations will not use as much absolute loads if we want to use those to push effort. This holds tonnage and average intensities down.


We can do hard triples of comp squats on one day and hard triples on a variation on another.  Even though the effort is the same, the comp squats are using somewhere around 85% and the variation is somewhere between 75% and 80%. This is a 5% to 10% drop in load while keeping effort the same.


The comp squats would be a medium stress day and the variation would be a lower stress day due to the drop-in load.  The other squat day will probably be something with higher volumes.  Perhaps 70% for 5 sets of 6 reps.  This is to build the volume and the number of lifts that we want. This would also be a higher stress day because of the total volume.  Volume is more stressful than intensity.


We need to organize training with enough low, medium, and high stress training days, and weeks. This allows the athlete to continue to make progress while decreasing the risk for injury and burnout.


We can have a lower stress week by just taking doubles in all 3 squats with a LSRPE of 8.  This drops total volume quite a bit but keeps effort high.  We need to make sure we have enough volume to keep the ACWR in check, and oftentimes this is what will dictate the number of sets.  These doubles tend to be around 90%.  This is a heavy training week and the athlete would never know that stress is lower.


There do have to be some boxes checked for the athlete to really push that effort.  They must come into the gym in a normal to excited mood. If they were just sick, or have a lot going on they are not allowed to increase weight, only decrease weight.


If we push one day really hard, we do not push all others.  Sometimes we will push one day really hard and drop weight or reps on a following day in the same week.  In the offseason we only do comp lifts on 3 days, so I am more open to pushing the lifts on all days here, because day 4 is just bodybuilding so loads are lower than they would be closer to the competition.  Deconditioning is a good tool to use if used correctly.


This article is getting long so I will cut it here.  These principles make the backbone of our training.  Perhaps I will do a podcast on it next week.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s