Fatigue: What Do We Really Know?

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

There is an old saying “The more I learn the less I know.”  I think this statement misses the mark quite a bit.  To be honest, the more I learned, the more I thought I knew.  If you truly want to know something you need to be observant.

 

Observing lifters going through training will tell you what you know and what you don’t know.  I had Jacob Tyspkin on the podcast, and he made a great point.  He said that general principles are all right until you narrow them down for the individual.

 

As coaches when we are trying to learn more, we are reading articles and books.  We are looking for answers in every place but the place that can give us those answers.  The only place where that answer lies is within each individual in front of us.

 

This is hard though. This requires us to develop our skills as a coach.  Learning to write a program is easy, learning to actually coach takes time.  I am still learning these lessons.

 

We have these general beliefs about volumes and fatigue management.  Like Tsypkin said, these general principles are true until we narrow it down for the individual.  When you look at this from an individual perspective it is very messy.  In fact, it is chaos.

 

If we were as simple as machines that just adapted to mechanical stress than we could predict and reproduce results based off of mechanical stress.  However, that is very rarely the case.  In my experiences results have never been reproducible.

 

We may get positive results from the same stimulus, but the extent of those results always is different. For example, maybe adding in pause squats led to a 10lb squat PR in a block, but the next time you use them you only get a 5lbPR, or 15lb PR.  It is never the exact same.

 

Of course there are other variables that go into that but using that example so you can see what I am saying.  Strength is not a linear process so why would we apply linear strategies to it?  If we truly want to know the answers, we need to ask the individual.

 

How do we do this?  We can’t just go up to our lifters and be like “Hey, what are the best volumes for you?”  They would have no idea.  However, they do have that answer and a well-constructed program can help you find those answers.

 

I gave the lifters freedom to come and get after it as long as they were physically and psychologically capable of it.  What I witnessed was pretty amazing.  When I started coaching, I would structure programs with high, medium, and low stress days.

 

I have never been a fan of classic deloads.  They never made a lot of sense to me.  Having a well laid out plan with enough high stress days to drive results, medium stress days to maintain, and lower stress days for recovery made more sense to me.

 

Around this same time I began working with Jeremy Hartman.  We had a good conversation about coaching, and he gave me a documentary to watch.  This documentary was about the weightlifter Dimas who won medals in 4 Olympics.

 

One part of this documentary really stood out to me.  He had said it took 3 years for him to get used to the new coaching style.  He went from a Soviet Training System to the Bulgarian Method.  This seemed difficult for him.

 

He didn’t totally buy in at first.  He asked the coach for more volume.  The coach collaborated with him and told him that he can take more warmup sets.  Over time Dimas adapted to it and the results were remarkable.

 

There are a couple of things here that caught my attention.  For one, the coaches willingness to collaborate for buy in.  This is more important than many think.  Also, that once he bought in and believed in the system, he not only adapted but excelled.

 

Learning more about the Bulgarian Method, coming from a Soviet System, was interesting to me as well. The Soviet System yielded great results within the Soviet Union.  However, here in America the results were not quite the same and I have a best guess for that.

 

In the Soviet Union they go to schools where powerlifting is a class subject.  They are taught all about the Soviet System.  Their perceptions and beliefs are that it is the best for strength training.  Here in America we do not have schools like that, we have Instagram.

 

The perceptions and beliefs of the American lifter is very different.  American lifters do not have the same beliefs in their coach either. This is why you see them constantly jump from coach to coach.  Cultural aspects are also a part of physiological strength along with the perceptions and beliefs of the lifter.

 

The Soviet System works well in Russia.  This is lots of submaximal volumes.  The Bulgarian Method works well over there.  This is less volume and more heavy sets.  Both of these programs work when it is in line with the perceptions and beliefs of the lifter and they have a good relationship with the coach. Again, it comes down to the individual.

 

I want to take into account all of this stuff with a program.  I want to structure the program in a way that is in line with their perceptions and beliefs, and that accounts for general strength principles at an individual level.

 

In doing so, I had to forget about a lot of what I thought I knew.  I set up training in a way that gave as much flexibility as I think I can, and I just observed.  What I observed was that volumes don’t matter anymore than what the lifters perceive them to.

 

There is no magical number of lifts or tonnage for each lifter.  Our understanding of overload is weak at best.  If the lifter feels they got a good training stimulus, chances are they did.  We are led to believe that as we train, we build up fatigue, see a dip in performance, deload, and supercompensate and come back stronger.  This isn’t true either.

 

This works sometimes and doesn’t work others.  It also never works exactly the same way.  However, many times we hit PRs in the middle of training blocks when fatigue should be high.  So what does this mean?

 

This tells me that the general idea of mechanical stress overload and supercompensation is poorly understood.  We need to let performance dictate decisions and when performance decreases, we need to stop and think for a minute.

 

If performance decreases and you believe that the fatigue aspects are true, you will do whatever you can to dissipate that fatigue.  This may work, but it very well may not work.  In cutting down work and deloading here you may actually limit the adaptations of the lifter.

 

Chances are if they just kept plugging away, they would adapt and come out stronger.  This is of course assuming that there are no glaring physical pains that are negatively effecting performance.

 

We definitely need enough training to elicit a training stimulus.  All my lifters get 1 to 2 hard sets as we call them.  These sets are anywhere from an RPE 8.5 or higher.  We do this every training day unless the lifter has some soft tissue thing flaring up.  Even then we may just tweak the exercise and carry on as usual.

 

What I have learned from doing this and just observing is that fatigue does not affect performance like we think.  In many cases lifters will start to feel a little banged up, like elbow pain, or back tightness, or knee pain.  We keep at it and the pain goes away and they start hitting these continuous PRs.  That is adaptation right there.

 

If the pain is altering mechanics or decreasing performance, we don’t just plow through.  We make the adjustments that are needed in those scenarios. There is the athlete taking their low stress day for recovery.  Most of these pains recover very quickly.

 

I actually think pain and “fatigue” in powerlifting is more psychological.  This doesn’t mean it is in your head.  It is physical pain wherever you are feeling it.  However, there isn’t tissue damage.  You can still make the pain worse too so hear me carefully.

 

Outside of the acute fatigue that builds up within a training day, the days after are also more psychological in my theory.  The recovery aspects of training from a physical standpoint are quick.

 

This doesn’t mean you just say you are ok, and you are.  This is happening at the subconscious level and it is tied to our beliefs, perceptions, and emotions as well as our cultural upbringing.  Those that played sports tend to recover “faster” in my experiences.

 

I also believe this can be trained, but it requires a strong relationship between the athlete and coach. This requires strong communication between the two.  With that said we shouldn’t be afraid of fatigue.  There is a lot to be gained from training in a fatigued state and still hitting PRs.

 

Once the PRs stop it is time to change the stimulus and repeat it all over again.  This usually means we alter the exercise a bit to attack what I see as a weakness.  This weakness is either a strength issue or an efficiency issue.  We feel out the exercise and then right back to loading it up.

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