Managing Fatigue in Powerlifting

 

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

 

As a coach one of our biggest jobs is managing fatigue with lifters.  Fatigue seems to have this very negative perception with lifters and coaches.  Fatigue is not necessarily a bad thing.  We actually probably need it to get stronger.

 

Powerlifting is a very unique sport in terms of lifter attitude in my experiences.  For a sport that you may hit one to two PRs per year on comp lifts, many lifters complain about the day to day inconsistencies in training numbers very frequently.

 

I think this has affected how many coaches actually plan their programs.  Trying to be a powerlifting coach is pretty cutthroat.  I do feel lucky to be able to do this as my full-time job.  As one of my lifters put it yesterday, “Your job is pretty cool.”

 

This competitiveness in the field to be a coach drives decisions a lot of times.  I think many coaches are afraid of losing lifters if they feel they are not performing well consistently.  I know I have had these feelings in the past.

 

I do feel the coach’s responsibility is to educate the lifter and to help address their expectations.  If a lifter has this attitude, they will not last long in the sport.  Also, a lifter with that type of attitude will suck the life out of a coach.

 

Let us get back to the topic of this article, fatigue.  Sheiko was amazing at utilizing fatigue to drive progress.  His infamous, squat/bench/squat days would definitely tire you out.  By the time you get to the second round of your squats you are mentally and physically tired.

 

These training sessions force the lifter to really dig down mentally and physically to complete the session.  There is a ton of positive training pieces here.  Fatigue can be quite an uncertain piece of training.

 

Sometimes a lifter will be tired and crush a PR, sometimes they will be fresh and have a poor performance, sometimes the taper before a meet works, sometimes it does not.  Fatigue is a very complex topic and it gets even more complex when we look at how it effects performance.

 

This does not mean it does not exist.  It certainly does and we need to do our best as coaches to know our lifters and to know when to push them and when to pull back.  I went through a period where I pushed everyone and tried to let the weight on the bar dictate lighter days.

 

This was a great learning experience.  For one, external load is not the only piece that affects recovery.  Internal load also matters.  Westside alternates upper and lower days to ensure enough recovery between training sessions.

 

The idea is that the lower body muscles get a break while we train the upper body muscles.  This is true for part of the picture.  There is still a larger fatigue piece that effects the system as a whole.  I have seen this referred to as systemic fatigue.

 

If we come into the gym and just push it hard every day, we will experience some fatigue.  This is true even if we alternate upper and lower.  Westside also breaks it up by max effort and dynamic effort.  The max effort is heavy weights and the dynamic effort is very light weights moved quickly.

 

Sheiko used a combination of high, medium, and low stress training days throughout his programs.  Sheiko did not structure it the same way as Westside.  He planned it based off of each individual lifter.  Sheiko also wasn’t using very heavy weights, or very light weights.  The program utilized mostly moderate weights for higher frequencies and volumes.

 

I decided for a period of time that I knew more than these two coaches.  I did lay out rules for each lifter to follow to help them self-organize into these higher, medium, and lower stress training days.  However, this did not work out as planned.

 

We definitely got stronger.  There are no questions asked about that.  We got really strong, really quick too.  I learned a lot about fatigue during this time.  Fatigue did not really begin to effect performance right away.

 

There would be days when lifters would not hit the numbers they expected to, but in general progress was moving forward at an incredible rate.  I thought I figured it out.  Lifters just needed to train harder!  As if no lifter ever thought of this before.

 

Fast forward a few months and we started experiencing a lot more nagging issues than we ever did before. We were just running a simple linear program during this time.  I was witnessing lifters that would go from 5s to 1s hitting PRs almost every week, to hitting some PRs early on and fizzling out as the block continued on. Almost as if they lost endurance to get through a training block.  Much of this fizzling out was probably due to the nagging issues starting to pop up more frequently.

 

This brought me back to my time with Sheiko.  Training needs to be a balance of high stress days to drive adaptation, medium stress days to maintain strength, and low stress days to aid in recovery.

 

I am a huge fan of singles.  This is the sport and I truly believe we need to train the sport.  Westside alternates the singles between squats and pulls.  I want to do both with my lifters.  How can I manage to do this?  That was the big question.

 

Westside spaces out their training days so that they are well recovered to crush a max effort lift.  I do like this idea, but I am also not against having a little fatigue going into those sessions.  However, if we are going to be training this hard in a fatigued state, we need to pay a lot of attention and pull back when it is necessary.  So somehow, we need to be able to monitor fatigue as best we can.

 

I decided to space out the max effort lifts by 72 hours.  In the research it seems like this is the upper end of the recovery time period from a hard training session.  48 to 72 hours seems like the sweet spot.  We squat on Monday, bench on Tuesday, and pull on Thursday.  This gives the lifter an extra day between the deadlift max effort and the beginning of the next week to ensure we are getting enough rest to perform adequately.

 

The deadlifts do rotate weekly between max effort and more rep work.  Before deadlifts, my lifters will do some rep work for bench press.  This is usually 48 hours after max effort bench press.  I am usually still a little sore at this point.

 

This is right at the very beginning of the recovery timetable from the max effort bench press we did on Tuesday.  That means they are most likely executing these bench press reps with some fatigue.

 

This fatigue makes light weights a little heavier and will really force the lifter to focus on technique.  Usually a variation to work on technique is used here as well.  After this session, they get 4 days of rest before they bench again.  This ensures they are fresh to hit that max effort bench press again.

 

On Friday or Saturday my lifters will do rep work with the squats and deadlifts.  These are usually very light, maybe around 70% to 75% of 1RM.  However, there will be a lot of sets and reps here.  This is to get the volume in and to work on technique.

 

This would be a more medium stress training day.  A medium stress training day should be something the lifter can recover from in 24 hours.  This should not take 48 to 72 hours to recover from.  This means if they do this day on Friday, they have 72 hours to recover from this session, and if it is completed on Saturday, they have 48 hours to recover.  This should be enough.

 

These days at the end of the week are very tough even if they are light.  After maxing out all week, usually with backdowns after, the lifters are pretty tired.  This makes the lighter weights feel heavier and challenges technique even more.

 

The coach needs to pay attention here.  My lifters write RPEs in next to all completed sets.  I want these day 4 lifts to be around an RPE 7.  The backdowns after the max effort, I want to be between an RPE 7-9.

 

I keep volumes and intensities very consistent here to help me monitor fatigue.  If the 70% of the max effort lift for a 4×4 is constantly an RPE 8, but all of a sudden with a variation it is an RPE 9, it will catch my attention.  If the day 4 squats and deadlifts are usually around an RPE 7, but they are creeping up to an RPE 8-8.5, it shows we are building some fatigue.  When this happens, I will tend to pull back a little and continue to monitor the RPEs.  Here instead of a 4×4 at 70% for backdowns we may do a 4×3 at the same weight.  On day 4, I can leave it the exact same to see if it improves, or I can scale it back a little.  I do both very frequently.

 

Our max effort work rotates into rep work at times too.  If I think a lifter needs a break, or we hit a true RPE 10 in an exercise, the following week they will get some sets and reps at around 80% of 1RM.  This is very similar to what Sheiko does.  There will be 4-5 sets of 2-3 reps at 80%.  The percentage is drawn off of the max effort from the previous week, so it is pretty accurate.

 

The more you get to know a lifter, the more you know when to do these things.  Every other week the deadlifts become sets and reps.  These are usually between 70% to 80% of 1RM and done for 4-5 sets of 3 reps.  Usually no more than doubles at 80% of the previous week’s max effort lift.

 

On these weeks, the last 2 training days of the week are lighter to moderate.  They should only require 24 hours to recover from.  This gives the lifter a 6 day break from max effort lifts.  This is a nice physical and mental reset.

 

There are also some weeks where there will be zero max effort lifts.  If a lifter hit all RPE 10s the week before, this is pretty common.  This is a week of all low to medium stress training days.  This is an easy week to recover from.

 

This turned out to be a lot longer than I had anticipated, but managing fatigue is a major component of a coach’s job.  Fatigue is not something to fear.  Training with fatigue is probably unavoidable because of work and other life stressors.  Mental fatigue can affect performance and for most of us our jobs are mentally fatiguing.  We have some lifters with physical jobs too.  Learning to navigate all of these situations takes experience.

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