ACWR and Progressive Overload

Written by: Kevin Cann


We all know that progressive overload is important to getting stronger.  We know we have to do more than we did before in order to get stronger. However, this is not an exact science and there are still many questions that coaches can have when trying to write programs.


Overload doesn’t just mean volumes need to increase.  We can overload a few different things.  We can overload intensity for one.  I keep track of all reps performed from 50% and higher.  I can have someone perform the exact same number of lifts as before, but we get a few more repetitions at 80% of 1RM or higher.  This can raise volumes a little bit, but it is not much usually.  Oftentimes when I do this, I use fewer total lifts, because of recovery, and volumes end up being a little bit less.


We can also overload efficiency.  This is what I tend to do in the offseason, far away from a competition.  This is also how I would treat someone with very poor technique.  We can use variations to help correct technique issues.


These variations can increase in difficulty.  For example, tempo squats at 70% for sets of 4 repetitions are much harder than comp squats at the same weight and reps.  This time under tension is progressive overload to the comp squat. From there we can pause on the halfway up for 2-4 seconds.  Obviously 4 seconds is more difficult than 2 at the same weights.  I find this variation to be harder than tempo squats for most.


From the pause on the halfway u squats we can do 1.5 squats.  This is where the lifter hits depth and goes halfway up, back down to depth, and then all of the way up.  These are very difficult and requires the lifter to spend a lot of time in the most difficult position of the lift.


Each block can use one variation and then the next block can use the exact same weights with another variation.  This helps improve technical proficiency in the lifts as long as the coach is selecting the appropriate variation for the appropriate lifter.  Blocks like this oftentimes end with PRs.


This does not mean that volume isn’t important.  We need to be sure the lifter is hitting appropriate baseline volumes for them.  There are many ways to organize a training block. I tend to prefer to organize it by rotating high, medium, and low stress days and weeks.  I learned this from Sheiko and have had good success with progress and health of my lifters.


I used to decide a number of lifts and average intensity for each lifter based upon the recommendations of Sheiko.  Now I do things a little bit differently.  I use the ACWR to organize these days and weeks.


Quick rundown on the ACWR. It is a rolling 4-week average of total tonnage in the big 3 lifts.  This is the chronic workload.  The acute workload is the current week of training.  Basically, the chronic workload is the athlete’s preparedness and the acute workload is the current fatigue in which the athlete is being asked to accumulate.


Acute workload divided by chronic workload equals the ACWR.  A ratio of 1.0 is baseline.  We never want to stray too far away from baseline either up or down for progress and health.  Everyone has a baseline that I try to maintain.


This baseline is not an exact science and it changes from person to person and even within an individual it can change over time.  This is extremely hard to maintain and why having the eye of an experienced coach is important.


Adjustments need to be made on a day to day basis.  We never want training to be too easy or too hard, for the most part.  I no longer let these numbers dictate the load on the bar. Instead I watch the lifter and decide from there.


Watching the lifter is more than just watching how the previous set looks.  It is getting to know them and understanding their lives a little bit as well as their mindset when training.  Getting stronger includes more than just building physical strength. The psychological piece is just as important.


Understanding all of these factors can help the coach put the right weight on the bar for each of their lifters.  Lifters also progress over time.  You don’t want to miss these moments and slow down their progress.  Making sure we get the right weight on the bar is important here.


If the lifter has gotten used to training volumes and the training is getting easier, we can overload intensity.  In these periods we will just push the weights but keep the number of reps the exact same.


If the lifter continuously hits numbers that are much higher than what is in their program, I will look at it and give them an inflated max.  They will then run the program with the same number of lifts and average intensities as before.


As the meet draws near we will drop variations and primarily focus on competition lifts.  This is where we will push volumes and number of lifts. A simple way to do this is by adding sets or reps to the same intensities that were previously used.


When structuring weeks of training I used to follow the guidelines laid out by Sheiko.  A medium volume week is 20-30% of the total lifts completed.  A small week is less than 20%, large week 30-40%, and extra-large week is greater than 40% of the lifts completed.


Instead of doing this now I use the ACWR.  I will have one week that is well above 1.0.  This sometimes will exceed the 1.3 that is mentioned as an upper range.  If it exceeds 1.3, I consider it an extra-large week.  1.0 is medium, less than 1.0 is small, and 1.1-1.3 is large.


If we are far out from a meet, I will structure the 4 weeks in a way that averages out to 1.0.  If I want to raise chronic workloads there may be 3 weeks over 1.0 and 1 week at .8-.9 for recovery.  This just depends on the lifter and the lifter’s schedule.


This is not just about mechanical stress.  This is why getting to know your lifters is important.  If they have a lot going on in their lives that lead to higher than normal stress levels, their tolerance for training stress will be less.


However, if things are going well, their tolerance for stress can be higher.  There is not much we can control here.  During the good times lets push it and during the stressful times lets maintain and work on some other aspects of training.  Take what is there when it is there, within reason.

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