fatigue, Powerlifting, Programme

Dealing with fatigue in your strength programme.

When it comes to programming for any physical quality be it strength, fitness or power we are going to introduce some amount of fatigue during training.  There isn’t really any two ways about it when you place an exercise stressor into your programme you will get an outcome of increasing the fatigue levels of the body.

They go hand in hand training and fatigue so we can’t decouple them completely it is not possible.  However what we can do is to make sure we are getting the most utility from our fatigue.  We can make sure we are getting more bang for our fatigue ridden buck.

Is the juice worth the squeeze?

Before you can get into strategies you need to ask yourself the following question before you commit to any exercise, sets x reps scheme, session or programme.

Is this going to produce the result that I want?

Before you can decide that the session or programme is going to be worth your effort you need to determine if it is even going to help you achieve your goal.  If you aren’t clear on what your goal is then this is a separate issue and something you need to get clear on before you go into any other planning or thinking.  If you aren’t clear on your goal or where you are going then all you will end up doing is random shit for no particular reason and you will probably wake up in the body of a cross fitter.  All sore and salty.

Once you are clear on the outcome you desire then it is much easier to sort out training and diet interventions that are going to be worth your time.  For instance, if your goals are to squat 600lbs and to have a six pack then you are probably going to rule out HIIT or interval training pretty quickly as the training adaptation is not going to get you closer to your exercise or training target (getting you to squat 6 bills) and it is going to induce a lot of fatigue.  All you are going to get from your fatigue dollars is some calorie expenditure which could be easily achieved by eating a bit less food or around maintenance if you are already at your exercise target of having abs.  It’s a fuck load easier to do a bit less (eat a bit less) than it is to add in high intensity, high fatigue inducing exercise into your routine.

If you want to become as fit as you can for a sport then you will be talking a completely different language those heavy leg weights are probably going to take away some recovery or fatigue you can use for a more productive spend of your time and energy maybe some sports specific exercise or fitness training.  You still want to do some strength training but it should be as little fatiguing as you can make it while still adding to the bottom line.

Fatigue should be avoided at all costs unless it is mission critical to your goal.

Picking up random bits of exercise or training for the sake of it is incredibly destructive and very sub-optimal behaviour if you are looking to strive towards a goal or endpoint.  Randomly going for runs or playing 5-aside football because someone gave you a phone call and asked if you fancied it is not going to lead to the best possible outcome.  If you don’t have a specific goal and want to just fuck about and have fun then, by all means, do whatever the fuck you want to do.  I’m not speaking to you, I’m talking to someone who has a goal (probably a strength goal since you are reading this article) that they want to achieve and I want to help them achieve that in an optimal way.

When it comes to lifting shit to get stronger we can generally classify intensity or goals into the following sub-categories

Classification Intensity Description
Hypertrophy / Assistance work 30-80% Primary goal is to increase cross-sectional area of the target muscle.
Skill Accusation / Volume Accumulation 60-85% Primary goal is to improve execution or to increase cross-sectional area specific to strength goal.  Where lifters will make the most progress typically.
Peaking / Strength Realisation 85-100%+ Goal is to increase a lifter’s skill with heavy loads.  Only way to realise your potential with maximal intensities is to train at that intensity.

Any good strength programme will contain every intensity zone above in varying degrees depending on the period of training and the main goal of the training cycle.  What you need to understand is the payoff and the amount of fatigue you are going to be paying for the outcome.

Hypertrophy and Assistance work –

The main outcome of assistance work is to create hypertrophy of the relevant muscle mass.  When the primary goal is strength you should understand that strength is incredibly specific.  Getting stronger at leg press is not going to transfer into your back squat, it might help you to get bigger quads but getting stronger at leg press is only really going to improve your leg press.

What comes out time and time again in the research is that hypertrophy is dependant on the volume of effort almost independent of any other factor.  Hypertrophy has been shown to happen at 30-90% in studies but when volume is matched by the difference in hypertrophy is not significant.  Some factors such as metabolic involvement or speed of contraction have been investigated but not with sufficient numbers in well-conducted papers that they really merit serious consideration.  It is the volume of effort and the plane in which that effort happens that really matters.

So if you are trying to get bigger quads for squat then you can hypertrophy those quads with a whole host of exercises and intensities it really comes down to what you are wanting to do with the exercise selection and the programme.

If you are reading into this correctly, you should have light bulbs going off.  It is not necessary to go anywhere near failure or to lift heavy loads to induce hypertrophy on a muscle you just need to accrue more volume week to week in the muscles that you are wanting to develop.  By spreading out the volume of work into more sessions there isn’t a need to go apeshit fuck jacked on a muscle group to try and shock that bitch into growing.

Velocity and strength

So we aren’t after hypertrophy as a goal per say it’s more the precursor to the goal we want the extra cross-sectional area or muscle mass in actual English so we can utilise it to put up bigger numbers.  So we are going to have to wade into higher percentage territory we need to accumulate lots of volume in the 80-85% range right to get stronger and more is more and better right?  Well yes and not, sure this is a way to skin the cat it’s a pretty fucking good way to skin the cat but it is also a highly fatiguing way to get the skin off said pussy.

Maximum intended velocity greatly improves bench press strength

Badillo et al 2014 looked at the effects of maximum intended velocity (n=9) vs half velocity (n=11) using a linear transducer to measure velocity.  During the 6 weeks 3 session a week strength training programme for bench press both groups improved.  However maximum intended velocity improved significantly for all outcomes when compared with the half velocity group.  Below % reported as maximum intended velocity vs half velocity.

  • One Repetition maximum – 18.2% vs 9.7%
  • Velocity developed against all intensities – 20.8% vs 10%
  • Velocity at light loads (>0.8 m/s) – 11.5% vs 4.5%
  • Velocity at Heavy loads (<0.8 m/s) – 36.2% vs 17.3%

Lactate tended to be significantly higher for maximum velocity group.  Both groups experienced the best training improvements with velocities equal to or slower than 0.8 m/s.

Maximum Intended Velocity during the squat exercise and its effect on strength and athletic performance.  

Blanco et al 2014 looked at the effect of Max intended velocity (n=10) and Half velocity (n=10) on the full squat exercise during a 6-week training programme.  Max intended velocity realised greater gains in the following measures (difference in outcomes showed in effect sizes, maxV vs halfV)

  • Maximum strength – 0.94 vs 0.54
  • Velocity developed against all loads – 1.76 vs 0.88
  • Velocity with heavy loads – 2.03 vs 1.64
  • Countermovement jump height – 0.63 vs 0.15

Training programme used for the study.

For strength and athletic outcomes, it would appear that the velocity of movement is an important training outcome given that both groups lifted the same volume and intensities the only distinctive difference was the velocity of the barbell.

Velocity Decrement over a set and it’s affect on hypertrophy and performance 

In a more recent study Blanco et al (2017) looked at the difference between a 20% decrement in velocity vs a 40% decrement in velocity (sets were terminated after the subjects bar speed slowed either by 20% or 40% fo their initial bar speed) after 8 weeks the 20% velocity decrement group showed a similar increase in strength and a better squat jump improvement (9.5% vs 3.5%) despite performing 40% fewer reps/volume when compared to the 40% group.  The 40% group gained greater muscular hypertrophy but seen a reduction in fast twitch muscle content of the quadriceps while the 20% group maintained fast twitch muscle.

We can see that a maintenance of velocity or a focus on maximal concentric intention/velocity is an important variable even in cases where there is less volume in the programme it results in similar if not better performance benefits.

Some of the takeaways from here is that yes you need to spend time in the 70-85% volume load zone to realise an increase in your top end but how that is done is important.   Executing fewer sets and reps but maintaining a higher velocity of execution could be a way of mitigating fatigue but still maintaining performance increase.

Taking the same volume load, chunking it into smaller workloads and performing it spread out over the week is probably a better way of producing strength gain while not becoming overly tired or sore.

Learning to lift heavy not to grind

When it comes to learning how to lift near maximal or maximal weights efficiently and with the consistent technique you need to lift near maximal or maximal weights.   There is no getting around this factor when it comes to training for maximal strength you can’t be at your optimal performance for maxing if you haven’t practised maxing or near limit loads.  Now a lot of people will take this advice and run with it thinking that the best thing to do with their training volume is to try near limit loads on a regular basis.

We need to go back to our first question – is the juice worth the squeeze.  Understand that a pyramid can only go so high as it’s base is wide.  The great pyramid of Giza stands at an impressive height of 146.7 meters however it’s length is 157% greater still at 230 meters.  As the height of the pyramid increases the length decreases until you get to the top where it melts away to practically nothing.  This is a really nice metaphor for training.  As you reach the top of the intensity curve the amount of work you can do and still recover from it drops away at a similar pace.  Not convinced of this perform an actual true 1 rep max in the deadlift and then try and repeat your performance for the next 3 days on the trot.  You may find your performance diminishes somewhat day to day as your fatigue fucking skyrockets.

Nothing accrues acute fatigue faster than near maximal or maximal attempts if this is going to concentric failure or lifting a maximum or near maximum training load, the net result is the same large amounts of acute fatigue if not offset which turn into chronic fatigue, overreach and eventually overtraining.

Lifting to near maximum is the most sports specific activity we can undergo in powerlifting, after all, it is the event we compete in.  How and when it is done is of the utmost importance when it comes to minimising fatigue accumulation and maximising our performance outcomes.  Fatigue is not a KPI for performance!  In fact, it is the complete opposite when fatigue is high our performance cannot be high.  Don’t agree?  Well I guess you don’t taper for important competitions or maxes then.

When we put stipulations on our execution such as 1 rep @ 8 RPE then singles and 90-93% loads can start to become routine and very non-fatiguing.  In the context of RPE a single @ 8 is basically calling for you to perform a single rep with what would be your 3 rep max on the day this corresponds to somewhere between 88-93% of real max depending on your preparedness on the day and your ability to max.

When putting a speed limit on it we would urge the lifter to stay above 0.3 m/s which is a common landmark or sign that the next rep is going to be a grinder or a failed attempt.  We recorded thousands of sets at Edinburgh rugby using the gym aware and this was the common trend we seen with lower body lifts which are the more fatiguing exercises anyway as they tend to be whole body efforts.  0.2 m/s seems to be limit speed for the maximal strength, of course, there will be lifters who can operate at this speed or less but remember you are the bell curve not the ends of it.

You want 90%+ lifts in your life but you don’t want slow 90%+ lifts in your life as you are going to negatively affect your performance for the next 2-3 days at the least.

When do you want to be fucked?

Fatigue is part of life during training it is unavoidable, however, it absolutely can be limited and controlled.  We can offset it and reduce it in our programmes and should do at all costs.  Much in the same way that a hedge fund manager looks to reduce risk at every opportunity and this is what makes them a professional.  A coach should look to reduce fatigue at all costs if they are professional in what they do.  Amateurs and novices will be fatigue seeking.

There are performance benefits to overreach however which are real and well documented all you need to do is to perform one go of the Russian squat routine or Smolov merry go round to see this to be true.  This is what is termed as a shock mesocycle or an accumulation/overreaching strategy.  You can look at it as slapping on some turbochargers to the engine but not touching anything else, you are going to realise a near-instant performance gain but there is a cost to be paid.

You can peak for important competitions using something like this or set yourself up for improved performance during the block by starting with a concentrated load and allowing for recovery during the block, then riding the upward trend of testosterone and performance after the crash has subsided.

This is a parlour trick however and should only be used to boost performance for very important events or competitions.  After such a peak or a block, you can expect for higher levels of fatigue and lower levels of performance for weeks if not months.

During periods of hypertrophy or size gain, we can also look to be sore and more tired than normal or during periods of high levels of general preparation we can see the same outcomes.  But performance isn’t the immediate goal it is widening the pyramid that is the immediate goal so fatigue is a price worth paying.

Fatigue management comes from good planning first and intelligent use of measures and autoregulation second.  You should change the plan to reflect you or your athlete’s preparedness to train but without, a plan you are going to be chasing our tail.

Plan first change later.  When you are setting out a program think where you can take away from the program and get the same result.  Shit coaches add, good coaches, take away.


Leave a Reply