Written by: Kevin Cann
I write a lot about the things I need to improve upon as a coach. I feel there is always more to learn and the second that I quit trying to learn more is the second I stop improving as a coach.
With that said, I was writing programs this week and a thought had hit me. These look vastly different than they used to. When I first started, I was fortunate enough to have one of the greatest powerlifting coaches in the history of the sport as my coach.
I mimicked his programs in the beginning. I saw how it was setup and I just followed along with the format. For the first year, I only coached one lifter. This lifter was actually an intern that I kind of forced to do it.
I learned a lot from going through the process and coaching another person through it. After the first year I felt I was ready to take on a few more lifters. My group grew a little. I had about 7 lifters and this continued to expand my abilities a bit.
I learned what worked for one person may not work for another. I also began to learn the things that I did not know. I tried to read everything I could to improve upon these areas, but the information on the internet is not exactly the best. There is some decent stuff out there, but it is pretty vague and did not really help me out too much. I needed more.
Year 3 saw my group grow exponentially. I went from 7 lifters to 37 lifters. It also saw the start of the podcast, Boston’s Strongcast. My network of coaches also began to grow. The combination of all 3 of these factors has really sped up my learning process.
Taking this many people through the process, I realized the flaws in the way I was doing things. I was able to poll quite a few successful coaches on these issues to see how they handle them, and I began experimenting with some different ideas.
I realized that the majority of my lifters responded much better to higher efforts in training, but volume still need to be adequate enough. The fear of training harder is the risk of increased injury risk.
When I first started coaching powerlifters, I was deep into the biomechanical approach to things. This came with a lot of mobility drills and underloading. I began to learn more and more about pain science.
Eventually, Mike Amato introduced me to the work of Tim Gabbett and the Acute Chronic Work Ratio (ACWR). I now had a monitoring tool that would allow me to increase efforts in training while monitoring loads to keep the lifters as pain free as possible.
I looked through the literature to better understand what muscles and when they are most important for all of the lifts. I then asked a few successful coaches a ton of questions. From there I found the similarities and thought of ways to put them into my own system.
I messed around with a few things to see how they worked. Like most things, some things worked, and some things did not. I was encouraged to keep experimenting so that is what I continued to do.
In the beginning my programs were very Sheiko-esque. We did squats and bench on days 1 and 3 and deadlifts and bench on days 2 and 4 (sometimes no bench on day 4). We very rarely went over 85% and all of the variations we performed were in our competition stances and grips.
I have always tracked number of lifts, total tonnage, average relative intensity, and what percent of volume comes from the competition lifts themselves. I have since added the ACWR to my analysis as well as monitoring last set RPE and the lifter’s mood upon the start of training.
I used to just tell the lifter to run the numbers. Don’t deviate from the plan at all. This was actually pretty good at the time and played into my experience level as a coach. I knew the average relative intensities were well within the range. I lacked the experience to tell a lifter to go up or down at the time. It also allowed me to see how the program worked without any outside influences like myself changing intensities.
The variations being in the competition stances and grips also made it easier for me to choose exercises. I analyzed where the lift was breaking down and selected the appropriate variation from there. Again, this fit well into my abilities as a coach.
Now, we squat and bench on day 1, squat and deadlift on day 2, squat and bench on day 3, and bench and deadlift on day 4. We frequently go over 90%. The variations I use most tend to change foot placement on the squats and deadlifts and grip on the bench press.
The variations we keep in until they are no longer a weakness to the lifter. If their sumo deadlift is weak compared to their conventional, we will keep pulling sumo until that gap closes. This may include some of those Sheiko variations I learned. We may do high bar wide stance pause on the halfway up squats if their technique with a high bar wide stance squats shows this variation will improve it.
I used to use multiple variations in a given block. Now I stick with one and we keep it in as long as I feel there is benefit coming from it. The variations also allow us to keep effort high while oftentimes controlling loads.
One of the important aspects of a Sheiko program is load variability. I still believe this is a very important aspect. We need enough high stress, medium stress, and low stress days to allow the athlete to get stronger as well as to minimize the risk of injury.
Variations allow us to keep effort high while oftentimes controlling loads. A high bar wide stance pause squat is much harder than a competition squat. 4 reps at 70%is much harder than 70%. This is why I monitor LSRPE. I want the effort to be between an RPE 7 and 9.
This effort can fluctuate throughout the week. If we have a really hard training session on one day, I like the other day to be a little less strenuous (hence the RPE 7-9 range). This makes sure technique stays strong and keeps the lifter from psychologically burning out.
I give the lifters some freedom to add or subtract weights. Based off the rep ranges in training they have intensity intervals. These intervals give them caps on how heavy they can go and how much they can lower weight. We don’t want them going up too much or down too low as both can negatively affect the ACWR. The only way they can take more or less weight is if I say so.
It is just cool to be able to see the transformation from mimicking my coach to actually developing my own system. I have been coaching since 2005, but only involved in powerlifting since 2015. This has been the result of 3 plus years of hard work and trial and error.
For other coaches out there, just work hard and focus on delivering good results. Stop worrying about what other coaches and lifters are going to say. Gain experience and lean on those more experienced for help.