Written by: Kevin Cann
This has been a topic that haunted me for most of my coaching career up to this point. At the end of the day, I am in a results driven business. Lifters seem to come in with an expectation that progress should happen very quickly and be unlimited. As a coach do you just throw everything at them and get them really strong really quickly, or do you take a more patient approach?
I have gone back and forth quite a few times with our programs. It is easy to get caught up in the moment of large success thinking that you have captured the secrets of strength in a way that no one else has ever thought of.
I was originally taught the step-loading process of progressive overload by Boris Sheiko. You have numbers, you execute the repetitions at those numbers. They start out difficult, but over time become easier. This shows that our body is adapting to them and that those weights have become habit for us as they have been passed from our upper motor neurons to the lower levels, increasing efficiency.
Being more efficient in the lift frees up more motor units to execute a max attempt with more weight. We make a 2.5% to 5% increase on each lift and repeat the process. I did this for 3 years and saw continued success. However, I will admit, I did become frustrated at times because I saw others getting stronger much more quickly.
I decided to really stretch a test day and added much more than 5% to a squat. I thought Sheiko would be pumped, but he told me that that weight was not on the sheet to try. At the time I struggled to understand, but now I understand much more. He was getting me results and setting me up for future success. He was making sure my technique would be in a place that would result in success later on.
When I decided to push progress, we saw a lot of it, and very quickly. I had one lifter that put 140kg on his total in 13 months. Others putting well above 50kg on their totals during this time period as well. 140kg in a single year. That made for one helluva IG post.
However, that lifter has stalled quite a bit since then. He had a shoulder injury that limited his bench press this past May. If healthy there would have been a PR, but it would have been his first PR since 2019, but it didn’t happen. In hindsight, 140kg over 3 years on a total is still extremely fast progress. That is averaging almost 50kg per year.
Alyssa, who just got back from Daytona has been with me for 4 years where we have added 110kg to her total. We have added between 20-30kg on her total annually. This last PR resulting in a 9th place finish at USAPL nationals. She didn’t even qualify for nationals when we began working together under the much lower totals and finished dead last at her first nationals in 2018. We have stayed relatively healthy and have just kept incrementally making progress with numbers and technique.
Over the years I have come to understand that it is not about the maximal weight you can lift on a day, but more about the maximal weight that you can hit on any day. There is a big difference here. Understanding this concept has led to PPS making well over 90% of our competition lifts in the last year and a half. Alyssa has actually gone 18 for 18 in 2 competitions with 7 of 8 PRs in the 4 disciplines, only matching her best bench press at nationals, but it was a lot easier.
Building stable weights in training starts with volume. Specifically, volume in the important areas of the body to perform at the highest level. In phase 1 of our programs, we only execute 4 max effort lifts in a month and do not pull heavy. We build a very large base here. Specifically in the posterior chain with great emphasis on the low back. The body needs to be able to withstand hard training.
Phase 2 we get 6 max effort lifts and really begin to build the volume up here. Volume is extremely important for the stability of numbers. The last face is our competition phase. Here we get around 10 max effort lifts. This is where we really lock in our competitive skill. This has led to some very stable top numbers at competitions for the team.
There seems to be a nice balance between lifting heavy singles and repetition work. This allows the lifter to develop the physical traits as well as the mental ones. Sheiko always said that load variability was one of the most important aspects of training. We get a lot of variability here, but also enough stability to allow the skill to become more efficient.
Technique and bodyweight are important aspects of this as well. The lower the efficiency of the lift, the lower the ceiling. Some lifters have incredible physical strength that allows them to overcome inefficiencies in technical execution. However, even they will have a lower ceiling if they do not improve upon those inefficiencies.
Too often lifters also want to cut weight. Unless you can win a national championship, just step on the scale and compete at that weight. Your body wants to settle at a given weight and when lifters try to keep themselves lighter in a weight class, they end up not eating enough to recover and not getting everything out of training that they possibly could. You can only go to the well so many times, pick your spots wisely, not to say you are a given weight to finish 3rd at a local meet.
When you decide that this sport is a lifelong journey, the pressure to get all of the results now goes away. It actually becomes freeing.