Embracing the Uncertainty of Strength Training: What Do We Really Know About Volume?

Written by; Kevin Cann


I have not been coaching the sport of powerlifting for too long.  This past Nationals was my 3rdone overall.  It is pretty crazy to look back and see how I was doing things from then to now.  In the beginning I told my lifters to just follow the program.


Hit those percentages and move on.  This worked very well as I believe it was aligned with my skills as a coach.  I was limited in my abilities but understood the layout of the program.  I began to see that there were some flaws to this and began changing things up.


Over the course of the next couple years I learned from as many other coaches as possible.  I have had some great conversations, made friends with these coaches, and learned a lot.  This really sped up my learning.  How we do things changed pretty rapidly based off of some of these conversations.


These coaches do things very differently from each other.  However, they all have pretty good success with their athletes.  I truly believe each of these coaches’ systems matches their skill set well.  Coaching is a skill.


With all of these different systems working well it can make things a bit confusing.  It also makes it a lot of fun.  It also raised a lot of questions for me.  Back in the fall, before nationals I sat down and really thought to myself about ways in which I can improve as a coach.


I asked myself a few questions and began to realize there were certain things we believe to be true, but it just doesn’t hold up to what we see.  I decided to trust myself more and the knowledge base I have as a coach and to embrace the uncertainty of training.


Some of the questions I asked myself were:


  1. How important is volume?
  2. How does fatigue affect training and can we truly monitor it?
  3. Is lifting heavy more dangerous than not and how much does that actually affect recovery?
  4. How important is frequency?
  5. Sheiko always told me technique was the most important aspect of training. Technique is a person’s skill under weight.  What do I know about skill development and can I train strength like a skill?


I will attack all of these questions in articles maybe.  Let’s see how far we get with the first one and go from there.  I tend to have a lot to say and I enjoy talking about this stuff.


How important is volume? We know that volume is important. We can’t just come into the gym and do 1 squat per week and get stronger.  There is a minimum effective dose that is necessary to get stronger and to make a more resilient lifter.  Higher chronic workloads have been shown to decrease injury risk.


We also know that if our short-term volumes exceed what we are prepared for our risk of injury increases. This is the acute chronic work ratio (ACWR) that I have discussed quite frequently over the last year.


I track daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly volumes by way of total tonnage, number of lifts, and average intensities.  I would use this information to design pre-meet blocks.  I would aim to increase volume or keep volume the same by increasing average intensity.


This worked frequently, but it also didn’t work 100% of the time.  I think the problem was that I cannot pinpoint someone’s exact volumes that would be “optimal” for that person.  I think I use too many variations for this to work because some come with lower weights being used.


I started working with Jeremy Hartman in August.  We were having a conversation and bells literally went off.  He had asked me about the program and how it was going. It was very different than what I was used to, and I told him how I liked having the heavier set at the end.


His response was “I like it to make sure we are getting a training stimulus.”  I immediately thought to myself “That’s it!”  I can’t pinpoint ideal volumes for everyone.  I do not possess that skillset and the variations throw off those numbers.


I can make sure we get at least a minimum effective training dose if I make sure we have a hard set in there.  By hard set I mean RPE 8.5-9.5.  I don’t want them missing reps, but if it happens, they need to be ok with it as it is part of the sport.


Previously they could increase weights on sets based off of these “intensity intervals” I came up with. Each rep range had a range of intensities for bar weight.  If they came in and they reported a normal to enhanced mood score they could increase weights up to the upper limit of that range.


If they came in and were not feeling well, they could drop it to the lower end, but no less.  This was to ensure that we kept our ACWR in the ranges that we wanted.  This worked better than not giving them that freedom.


There was a problem though. I was allowing the ACWR to dictate the weight on the bar without even noticing it.  There were days that lifters could have definitely gone up by more than what I allowed them.  My rules held them back.


I had a conversation with Tim Gabbett, the sports scientist that does the ACWR research, and he said that this is not a program, but a monitoring tool.  It should not be picking the weights.  The coach needs to use his eyes and gut feelings to make decisions.


I threw out the intensity intervals (without the lifters knowing) and began telling each lifter what to put on the bar.  We would get 1-2 hard sets for each lift each training day.  If a lifter needed a break, we just ran the numbers or decreased the weights a little.


In the past 3.5 months the results have been shocking.  The number of PRs that people are hitting for reps is mind blowing to me.


  1. Dave Rocklage-665lb squat (10lb PR), 315lb bench x 2 (best platform bench is 308lbs), deadlift 700lbs x 2 (best meet deadlift 666lbs)
  2. Danial Lau- 495lb Squat (20lb PR), 300lb bench x 2 (15lb all-time PR)
  3. Danielle Nguyen-consistently tripling her second squat attempt from November, 315lb deadlift x 2 (15lb all-time PR)
  4. Vicky Cai- 270lb squat (5lb PR), 330lb deadlift x 2 (335lbs is best)
  5. Emily Biberger- 305lb squat (5lb PR, tripled 285lbs last night for 2 sets)
  6. Tauri Green- Hit squat and bench PRs and has been handling 90% triples on the squat frequently on variations
  7. Kelly Gamache- tripled her 100% for 2 sets in her second squat session yesterday, benched 132lbs in August and hit 150lbs x 3 yesterday, doubled a 10lb all-time PR on deadlifts
  8. Ryan Valentine-Added 35lbs to his squat, doubled his best all-time bench press, and added 15lbs to his deadlift since Nationals
  9. Alyssa Orlando, doubled her best ever squat, hit a 10lb all-time bench PR wide grip
  10. Mike Damico-Added 64lbs to his total from October squatting 535lbs and deadlifting 655lbs
  11. Jess Ward- Handles over 90% for reps on a weekly basis
  12. Alex Tavares-Added 25lbs to his squat
  13. Ariel Bouvier- Has doubled 97% on a squat, doubled 5lbs under her best bench last night after a bunch of bench
  14. Alyssa Smith-Doubled a 20lb squat PR
  15. Doug Stuart-Doubled 3lbs over his best squat from Nationals
  16. Mark Doherty- Doubled his best squat for multiple sets
  17. Marilyn M-Doubled an all-time 15lb squat PR
  18. Julia Matteson- Added 30lbs to her squat
  19. Allie Ferreira- Added 10lbs to her squat for multiple singles, and hits reps on 100% deadlifts weekly


This isn’t even everyone. We haven’t even tested with many of the lifters.  These weights were hit mostly in training.  Most lifters are repping out lifts in the 90% and higher intensity ranges. There have been light days thrown in occasionally, but there has been one deload used in the group above in 3.5 months.


I have been making more decisions based off of what I see.  I use volumes to build workloads to ensure the lifters are prepared to handle these loads. I am truly using it as a monitoring tool and not allowing it to dictate weight on the bar.  We hit 1-2 hard sets and if there are more lifts scheduled we just back down to get the lifts in.


These results aren’t just due to lifting heavier.  It definitely plays a role though.  The answers to the other questions are just as important.  I will get to the next one in the next article.

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