How I currently think about Sheiko's programs

Boris Sheiko is currently the most renowned powerlifting coach in the world, having produced countless exceptional lifters, not only in Russia, but thanks to the internet all over the world. His programs often deem very complex, featuring his characteristic double sessions, where you perform a main lift twice in a single training unit, with another main lift sandwiched in between. Also the volume seems sheer unsurmountable to those accustomed to typical rep schemes like 5×5 or 3×8. In this post I want to elucidate a few thoughts I had about his programming, after having read his excellent powerlifting book [1], many posts on his website and every bit and piece I could find by him on the internet, as well as training according to his templates and tinkering with them. In my opinion Sheiko's programs start to look quite natural once you think about them as maximizing practice towards perfect technique.

The numbered programs and the large load intermediate program

When searching for his programs on the internet, one usually finds his famous numbered programs. They have numbers like #30, #37, #40 and so on. The numbers do not mean much, it's just a result of Sheiko having written a lot of programs over his long career. The usual caveat is that all his programs were written individually for specific lifters, so you have to adapt them to make them work for you. There is however the so called "large load intermediate program", which is posted on his forums. It consists of the programs #37, #30 (or #31, for heavier athletes) and #32 as a peaking block. I myself did not have much success with #32, however, #37 and #30 have become my go-to strength programs. These programs are very basic and involve very little variation of the main lifts, only a little bit of incline benching instead of the regular bench, and deadlifts to knees and deadlifts from boxes for the deadlift. Other programs by Sheiko also use chains, bands, work from pins etc., but I think this very basic program lends itself to distill the main ideas. The spreadsheets come with nice charts for overall volume and loading of the specific weeks, so I assume the reader has already completed a Sheiko program, or at least refers to these to see how the ideas presented look in practice.

The central theme: Lifting is a skill

While muscle moves weight and lean mass explains 90% of variation of weight lifted amongst high level competitors, to become a high level competitor you need excellent technique. This is true for every sport, and even though powerlifting is less technical than pretty much every other sport on the planet, good technique still is critical. This becomes obvious when looking at bodybuilders, or even strongman, who, even though they are often as strong or even stronger as humanly possible, lift less in the powerlifts than powerlifters of comparable advancement and bodyweight, even if they have put in quite some practice.

Having said that, Sheiko does not seem to be overly concerned with hypertrophy. I have never seen a direct statement by him on this matter, but there are three apparent reasons. First, in Russia athletes usually have a much better sports background than in the west, with a much bigger focus on the development of athletic qualities during formative years, and they are usually younger when they come to the sport, giving them more time to grow in a very long career. Second, his programs feature usually enough volume to grow pretty much everyone. Third, when planning your training year, you can and should always put in some time dedicated to growing new muscle, but I guess these periods just don't seem to surface on the internet in form of spreadsheets.

So for the purpose of this post, I think we should relegate hypertrophy to something that is being taken care of at some other point. The main quest now is to find the best way to improve the skill to lift the most weight for a single repetition in the squat, bench and deadlift. At this point one also has to mention that many, if not most, of those who trained under Sheiko did not use steroids and competed in tested federations, as this accusation sometimes comes up when people see the incomprehensible amount of volume of his programs.

Improving technical stability

Most lifters, at least after a little bit of coaching, can display pretty good technique, which obeys the rules of your sport, is safe to perform and quite efficient. At least as long as the weights are moderate. Sound technique is only the first step towards technical proficiency.

The key marker for technique is technical stability: Once you have achieved a solid technique, you want that every repetition looks the same, although technical degradation during maximal attempts is common. The prime example for this is rounding of the back during a maximal deadlift attempt after having trained with a flat back all the time. This is both unsafe, as you impose maximal forces on your body in a position you did not train with and it is suboptimal, as you leak energy, since some of the energy that could have been put into the bar now is used to deform your spine and supporting muscles.

One has to increase the weight you are able to move with stable technique. How do you do that? By lifting a lot of weights at which are light enough so that you can display good technique, but heavy enough so that they pose a challenge and you need to focus on technique. In other words: Dedicated practice.

Let us now first discuss how one can measure the amount of dedicated practice, before we see how many elements of Sheiko's training templates unfold naturally, at least before the background of the usual constraints an athlete faces.

The leading measures of dedicated practice

In general one differentiates between leading and lagging measures with regards to any goal. Lagging measures are usually those that result from certain actions, but cannot be influenced directly. Leading measures are those that can be influenced directly by actions and are predictive of changes that lead you further towards your goal or farther away. One of the simplest example is dieting to get leaner. While being "lean" is somewhat subjective and consists of achieving a certain level of muscularity, as well as a certain body fat percentage, the weight on the scale is sufficiently closely related to it and makes the process of dieting measurable. However, you cannot influence the weight on the scale directly in a useful way. On the other hand, your caloric intake is directly influenced by your actions and will have impact on your weight change. So in this case your caloric intake would be a leading measure, while your scale weight would be a lagging measure and it takes both to diet successfully, because depending on the weight change on the scale, you adjust your caloric intake.

With regards to building muscle it is to this point not completely clear, what the leading indicator should be. Although it is somewhat clear that progressive overload and adequate recovery is the main driver behind muscle growth, it is hard to put a number on it which you can use to guide you through your training. Time under tension was a long time favorite, whereas volume and more recently, number of hard sets, have gained a lot of support in recent years. Again, these are numbers which you can influence, not the mechanistic concepts actually driving the growth of muscle. Failing to make this distinction has lead to many shameful internet debates over the recent years.

In general literature about motor learning or learning in general, the favorite number is the number of repetitions, say practice throws for basketball or golf shots taken. Sheiko does use a similar approach, namely number of lifts (over 50% of your maximum), or short, NL. He does not explicitly say that you have to do as many lifts as possible, but NL is used as a distinction between heavy, medium and light days, weeks and months. Also the sheer number of lifts performed over any period of time with Sheiko's training templates attracts attention. While squatting 5×10 once a week would count as a high volume training for many people, in Sheiko any given squat session might easily beat that, for multiple times a week.

Shooting for a specific number of lifts without any further constraints clearly does not seem too beneficial. There is also another number, average weight lifted or average intensity, which is just the average weight lifted in relation to your max. This seems to pan out around 65%-70%, but Sheiko says that this is a result, not a goal. Because what happens during any given time frame is a variation of load. It has a wave-like nature and it seems to be such that you always get as many reps with as much weight as possible in, while maintaining very good form.

So this seems like a good number: Number of lifts performed at an intensity which improves competition technique with maximal weights. Try to come up with a training plan which maximizes this number and it starts to look a lot like the seemingly complex Sheiko templates, which we will now dive into it.

Variation of load, reps and volume

In order to maximize to spent the number of sufficiently heavy lifts, one cannot work very well with straight sets all the time. As your technical ability improves, you need more weight, and if you ever tried progressing something like 5×10, you quickly notice that even if it does not destroy you physically, it destroys you psychological once you hit a certain weight, especially on squats or deadlifts. You could drop reps, but then, well, you drop reps, and that rather aggressively. So a rather standard way to do this would be going from 5×10 to 5×8 to 5×5 to 4×4 and then 3×3, which means the NL goes from 50 to 40 to 25 to 16 to 9 reps. This might be appropriate in a peaking block, but for your normal training, only 16 or 9 reps of any lift per week or even per session is very likely too little for long term development of the skill.

The rather obvious solution is to vary the weight used, so instead of using the same weight for five sets, you start to pyramid up to a certain weight and maybe go back down. Clearly this solution has also it's limitations, so at some point you start dropping reps. Since reps with higher weight are more specific than reps with lower weight, you might want to leave the reps a tad lower, but do more sets mit more weight.

It is now easily conceivable how one might arrive at a typical pyramid as seen in Sheiko's training programs, e.g. 50%×5, 60%×4, 70%×3×2, 75%×3×2, 80%×3×5, 75%×3×2, 70%×4, 60%×6, 50%×6. In some sense this is also a very naive approache to training. If you've never been confronted with any training program and just went into the gym, looking what you can do, chances are that you would do a pyramid or just a peak, instead of multiple sets with the same weight and reps. Another typical rep scheme would be just working up to multiple sets, so 50%×5, 60%×4, 70%×3×2, 80%×3×5.

One of the benefits of this is that you now have a lot of variables to play with for a week-to-week progression. You can increase the percentage of the top sets, you can add top sets, you can modify the number of reps, you can adjust how much work you do before and after your top sets. So over a typical cycle, just for the straight top sets, it might look like 75%×3×5, 75%×3×6, 80%×2×5, 80%×2×6, 80%×3×5, 80%×3×6. You slowly increase the amount of lifts you do with heavy weights and slight variation in reps and sets prevents that you get burned out. Similarly the pyramids might go from a peak of 75%×3×2 to a peak of 90%×1×2 over the course of a few weeks.

On a higher level, say from week to week and month to month, this way it is also easy to have weeks of lighter and heavier loads, without sacrificing load on the bar. While in Western periodization you usally follow a n week up, 1 week down scheme, where you have n weeks of ever increasing poundages or volume and then one deload week, Sheiko is a bit more senstivie about the lifter's accumulated fatigue and varies the total numbers of lifts from week to week. You still accumulate a lot of fatigue over time, but not so much that it becomes detrimental to training. Only shortly before competition or testing a new max you are allowed to drop fatigue and show performance.

Again this looks like a rather natural approach to lifting. You did some work last time, so to abide the principle of progressive overload, you have to add something somewhere, and you just look for a place where you can make a meaningful change without it being so disruptive that you cannot lift with excellent technique anymore. If one week was really heavy, the next week is a bit lighter, but at least during the training cycle, you never rest completely.

Ability to extrapolate

There is another factor favoring intrasession variable loading over straight sets, namely the ability to extrapolate. Your main goal in powerlifting is to get stronger, so you have at some point lift a weight you have never lifted before. However, as weight on the bar changes, so does the mechanics of the lift. A deadlift with 50% of your bodyweight is a very different movement than a deadlift with 100% of your bodyweight and this is also a very different movement than a deadlift with 200%. The relations of the levers and the weight, the position of the center of gravity, the amount of force you have to produce at every joint, everything changes in very intricate ways. To lift x% more weight, you can not just only produce x% force at every joint, but the relations change. As one can see with classic mechanical tasks like "balancing a double pendulum on a cart", this is not a trivial problem to solve.

Hence one has to have the ability to extrapolate from previous lifts to further lifts. In order to get better at lifting different loads, one trains at different loads. Even when volume and effort can be equated, doing something like 90kg×3, 100kg×3, 110kg×3 trains this ability much better than say 100kg×3×3, because in the latter case you are not exposed to different weights.

Double sessions

Sheiko employs different techniques to achieve the goal of doing as much work as possible, like ramping up weights or doing pyramids. However, one of the things that is almost unique to Sheiko's programming are the so called double sessions where you perform a given lift twice a day, e.g. you squat, then you bench and then you squat again.

This is a very good way to get more work in, as the muscles involved in the squat are mostly different ones than those used in the bench, so you can rest up a bit and then can do more work on the squat again. When deadlifting Sheiko often employs two different deadlift techniques, like first doing deadlifts to the knee, then benching, then doing full deadlifts or deadlifts from boxes.

While doing more work is a good reason in itself, there also is a benefit in motor learning (and learning in general) when learning the same movement twice in a day, as opposed to doing the same work in one large session (cf. the very interesting and comprehensible review paper [2]).

Closing thoughts

I hope this helps someone to make sense of Sheiko's templates. Even if you do not train after his system, the presented concepts appear in most sensible training programs, e.g. in Mike Tuchscherer's Reactive Training Systems, where he explicitly states that the volume leading up to the top set is good volume, or just the variation of training loads in schemes like HLM.

[1]Sheiko, Boris - Powerlifting: Foundations and methods
[2]Soderstrom, Bjork - Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review