Why More Volume is not the Answer

Written by: Kevin Cann


I know many programs are heavy volume based.  This is not to say that they do not work.  They definitely can.  I was on one for 3 years working with Boris Sheiko.  My number of lifts stayed very close to the same over that time period, but my maxes were going up which made the absolute values of given percentages heavier.


This makes us step back and define volume.  I define volume as number of top sets.  Think RPE 8/8.5 or higher.  If you use percentages this would be 80-85% or higher.  Based off of this definition my volumes did not change as the number of lifts and the effort of those lifts was pretty similar.


My workload increased over time.  This is sets x reps x weight.  The majority of my sets were performed with the 3-6 rep range, with an average intensity of 70% plus or minus 2%.  This included all warmups of 50% of 1RM and greater.


This definitely worked.  I saw continued progress for 3 years.  Now, I was a beginner.  I could have seen that progress doing anything, but I do believe this was an extremely well done program.  For a coach that speaks a different language, and I discussed things over email, this is exactly what I needed.  It is also what I needed as a newer lifter.  Just follow the program.


I gave my lifters similar programs following the rules that Sheiko laid out.  What I saw was that my lifters were hitting walls and getting stuck.  This may just be because I was not good at manipulating these training volumes, assessing the lifts and assigning the appropriate variations, who knows.


Dave Tate says that all sticking points are either mental, technical, or physical, I would throw an and between all of those too, as there can be a whole pile of issues sometimes.  I noticed for many the issues were mental.


The lifters were getting nervous when they were faced with heavier weights.  In a Sheiko program, most sets are performed at 85% of 1RM and less.  This does not disregard the mental, but it is for the mental aspects of higher level lifters in a different culture.


Submaximal weights build success.  You never miss.  This is a big argument for those that utilize these types of programs.  You train with success you should see success on the platform.  I was dealing with less experienced lifters in a very different culture.  This is where we made a switch to lifting heavier.


What we see in the literature, as well as what I have seen in the real world, is that if you want to get better at lifting heavy singles you need to lift heavy singles.  Heavy singles are the sport.  In any sport I have ever participated, practicing the sport has always been important.


I know some programs will do a single at like an RPE 8.  This is not to make waves, but just my thoughts on this.  To me a single at an RPE 8 is a walkthrough in a sport practice.  It does not have the psychological pieces tied to it like a more maximal effort attempt.  There is not risk of consequences, like a missed rep.


When I discussed training with Dr. Keith Davids, he spoke about training with consequences as this carries over greater to competition.  We underestimate the importance of sports psychology with our lifters because it is difficult to track.  Volumes and intensities are easy to track.


We can’t just max out all of the time.  It would be great if we could, but just like with other sports, intensities of practice alternates.  One reason is for recovery.  There is some positive recovery stuff from singles.


Singles for one come with lower volume.  CNS fatigue is not a thing.  I honestly feel this may just be a myth from equipped lifters.  I know I get some crazy brain fog type issues going on after being in the equipment to lift.  I do not see this with raw lifters.  Singles are easier to recover from in a physical sense.  Psychologically, probably not and that is the issue.


The singles get the lifters in and out of the gym.  This gives them greater recovery time.  My lifters all work full-time jobs.  The more efficient we can make training the better.  Nothing is more efficient than heavy singles.


Variation allows us to hit these singles almost every week.  If a previous week had a very tough single with a variation, we will use a percent of that for reps the following week to change it up.  Sometimes there just is not any place to go.  This follows all of the guidelines that Sheiko laid out.


The percent is accurate as it comes from a max effort attempt from a week ago.  The number of lifts and average intensity follows what he taught me.  This addresses the technical and physical components of the lifts, while giving the mental a break and not forcing a miss in training.  We usually do light backdowns after the singles to work on technique and just build some workload.


Building workload is important for conditioning.  Having the ability to do this increases the lifter’s ability to recover from training.  If we need to pull back to give them a break, I can remove these and just replace them with more bodybuilding style exercises.  I prefer this workload to come from some form of the lifts as there will be greater carryover from them for our totals.


The second half of the week is rep or dynamic work.  This looks very similar to what it did when I was following a stricter Sheiko program.  We do utilize some of Westside’s ideas on dynamic work as well.


This is for load management.  Sometimes the lifters need a wave of lighter weights to just move around and recover.  These days will also utilize variations to increase technical efficiency as well as attack weaknesses.


These rep and dynamic days are not going to build 1RM strength that great.  They instead are assisting in the growth of 1RM.  Remember all sticking points are mental, technical, or physical.  These days address those needs without crushing the lifter.


It is not like our programs are just singles and we disregard volume.  There is a decent amount of volume in there.  If we define volume as top sets of RPE 8/8.5 or higher, than we probably have more than most.  This is with heavy singles in training, so greater specificity and carryover to increasing 1RM.


Our workloads are probably far less than others.  Our total workload for deadlifts is very low.  Our frequency is much lower than most programs I see in the USAPL.  This leads to a few of my lifters telling me that they think they need more volume.


Again, how are we defining volume?  In most cases they just want an increased number of lifts.  First, we need to identify what the actual issue is.  Is it mental, physical, or technical?  Is increasing the number of lifts going to correct one of these issues?  Maybe, but there is a lot we can do before increasing number of lifts.


First off, many lifters think they are stuck when they really are not.  This shit is not linear.  There will be periods of time where you do not hit PRs.  If you put 5lbs on each lift every 3 months, that would be 60lbs on a total each year.  That is a lot.  Progress happens incrementally over a longer time scale.  Yuri Belkin went 5 years without a PR.  All of us will experience these periods.  Learn to enjoy the sport and not chase numbers or you will quit.


Increasing workload can make you stronger.  Lots of lifters on a higher frequency, higher volume program, get really strong really quick.  However, the long term success of a program like that is debatable.


Equipped lifters tend to have longer lifting careers.  They also tend to not do as much volume as raw lifters.  This is just a correlation though.  They also lift higher absolute loads.  So lower volume, higher intensity.


Now, it could just be that they experience greater variability in training so less psychological burnout.  These are just observations without any science to back it up, but something to think about.


Someone like Dave Hoff has been training for almost 20 years.  He went years with minimal increases in total.  By minimal, like a couple pounds each year.  He just competed and added about 100lbs to his total.


I am not there to see him train, but his absolute loads are enormous.  He is staying healthy enough to continue to break world record totals.  I understand it is multiply and not drug tested.  That does not make me want to disregard that information.


I am not sure there are examples of that with higher frequency, higher volume programs.  The Russians have over 10 years of lifting experience before they get into a program of those higher volumes.  They have a much larger base than the Americans doing them.


Perhaps those Americans with a long bodybuilding background are more prepared for that style of training. This is not the majority of the lifters performing these programs.  They have a limited athletic background and just jump right into it.  Sheiko recommended 3 days per week for beginners, and some of these beginners are training 5 days per week.


This makes me reluctant to add in barbell lift volume/workload. If they want to do more, hit more bodybuilding as long as you can recover from it.  I do not think this will make their totals greater, but it increases their tolerance for workload.  This may lead to a longer career.  It may not either.  Perhaps all we need is a stable training program that looks at technique first, before increasing workload.


This makes recovery easier for the lifter and increases in workload more gradual.  Remember, Sheiko did not increase my number of lifts over 3 years.  My workload just increased gradually as I got stronger.  If I did not get stronger, it stayed the same.


Exercises were selected to work on technical inefficiencies.  We keep a lot of what we did back then, or better have slowly returned.  We do this in combination with max effort singles.  We focus on mental, technical, and physical pieces of training.

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