The Basics of Sheiko
Article by Robert Frederick
Ninety-one. That’s the number of gold, silver, and bronze medals Sheiko’s students have won at the European and World Championships as of 2014. It seems like they must be doing something right. In this article we’ll dig into some of the underlying principles of Sheiko’s training system.
The Universal Programs
All of Sheiko’s programs found online are best thought of as examples and not immutable programs intended to be followed exactly as written. Several were even written for specific athletes on a week-by-week basis according to their individual needs.
Boris Sheiko comments:
“Any plan, even one perfectly planned for a group of athletes and written by a highly accomplished coach, must be adjusted during training sessions. This is explained by the fact that the athletes find themselves with different anatomical and physiological realities, and therefore they will have different reactions to load, different recoverability between workouts, and miscellaneous technique errors in the execution of competitive exercises.”
In other words, adjust the programs as much as necessary in order to meet individual needs. How much the universal programs should change depends on individual strengths and weaknesses.
Here are some typical scenarios:
Strong with bad technique
Weak with good technique
Strong with good technique
Weak with bad technique
The first group is currently the most common user of Sheiko’s templates. Most in this group have a fair amount of training experience without ever being formally coached, train solo in the gym, and get the majority of their information online.
The universal templates are thus written for this group. Lifters that have a good strength base, yet make common errors in the competitive lifts will get the most from the universal programs as written.
Anyone finding they have different needs will benefit from making appropriate changes to the program, according to their own strengths and weaknesses.
Let’s start with a statement that should be considered uncontroversial and then work up from there.
“A highly coordinated group of muscles translates into superior performance.”
The neuromuscular coordination required for strength movement patterns takes time to develop and is essentially a learning process. The ability to coordinate specific sequences of muscle activation during the performance of a lift, which involves multiple muscles, requires precision that can only be acquired over a long period of repetition-based training.
In other words, practice makes perfect.
If you accept this to be true, which you should, then we now have a requirement for repetition-based training. However, as things often turn out, there’s more to it than that. For example, when doing a set of 10 squats, it is of great interest whether a specific motor pattern is repeated 10 times or if 10 slightly different variations are only done once each.
Tracking the barbell path and/or muscular activity over the span of multiple repetitions shows a clear loss of motor precision as fatigue accumulates. The variability between repetitions typically increases as the set progresses and the lifter approaches limit strength. Figures 1 and 2 show the general relationship between the intensity of an exercise and the variability of the repetitions performed.
Figure 1. Intra-set Repetition Variability
Figure 2. Typical Variability Zones
With that in mind we can go back to the example above with 10 repetitions of the squat and we can structure the execution of these reps in such a way as to minimize the variability between repetitions by reducing the number of repetitions in each set, while increasing the number of sets. Suppose the objective is 20 repetitions with a moderate weight. Table 1 shows two ways this could be structured.
Table 1. Comparison of Set/Rep Schemes
Total variability is lessened in option number two since intra-set fatigue doesn’t accumulate to the same extent. Thus, there is a greater stimulus towards developing a single motor pattern and consequently greater strength adaptation from the same volume.
An additional benefit of stable motor patterns is that they scale better under load. Sheiko refers to this as “extrapolation”. Put an unstable pattern under stress and it won’t go very far until it breaks down since it’s already “broken”. Meanwhile, the stable pattern can be stressed much further until it deteriorates. One of the questions people usually have about Sheiko’s programs is why the programs rarely go above 85% of 1RM. Extrapolation is part of the explanation.
Probably the most familiar embodiment of this principle of quality reps is the table put together by Soviet sports scientist A.S. Prilepin.
Table 2. Prilepin’s Table
One way to compensate for an unstable motor pattern is with higher intensity work. So while each single repetition may be unique, each receives a stronger stimulus. Needless to say, the combination of limit weights with unstable motor patterns is a risky training methodology.
So what about the case where an athlete already has excellent motor patterns such as in scenario #2 or #3 from above? In those cases, higher intensities/loads are a logical and convenient modification to the templates.
Modification of the templates for these lifters is straightforward. One only needs to use inflated training 1RMs when setting up the program to increase the effective overall intensity. At the same time, the overall volume should be reduced. Finally, the selection of special exercises in the universal programs may not be relevant either, so appropriate substitutions should be made.
One of the notable characteristics of Sheiko training is the double lift sessions. A typical week is shown in Table 3. The first thing to notice is that there is no specified system for additional exercises beyond the competitive exercises and their variations. This is because once the required lifts are completed everything else is fair game, so long as it improves one’s results. Bodybuilding style work is a common approach to additional exercises.
Table 3. Basic Workout Structure
On Monday’s the lifter starts off with the bench press, moves on to squats, and then comes back to bench some more. It seems unusual at first to divide the bench work in two parts. Indeed, one of the modifications people make when using Sheiko’s programs is to combine the sessions into one longer one. This is in many cases a suboptimal change, as the intention of splitting the session into two is to shorten each and allow for greater recovery. The underlying logic is the same as for shortening the length of each set — to minimize fatigue and its effects on repetition quality. So instead of one long session, one does two shorter sessions and as a result, performs the same number of overall repetitions except with less variability between each. Once again, the stimulus and adaptation that occurs is greater.
The Training of Movements – Phases and Elements
When analyzing the training of the competition exercises it is useful to break down the lift into parts.
Phase 1 – Pre-start position
Phase 2 – Start position
Phase 3 – Eccentric motion
Phase 4 – Concentric motion
Phase 5 – Fixing the final position
Phase 6 – Returning the barbell to the rack
The phases are further subdivided into “elements. While the phases are common to all lifters, the elements show the individuality of one, since the elements depend on individual morphological and functional characteristics of the lifter. Proper usage of the elements characterizes an individual technique, which is most suitable for that person.
While the use of partial repetitions may seem unusual to some, it is very common in the training of weightlifters, where the goal is to target specific components of the lift for improvement. Slow-motion video analysis or the sharp eye of a coach may reveal a technical error in the execution of a lift, which can often be corrected by carefully selected special exercises, such as a deadlift up to the knees with a pause. So while these exercises are specific to certain weaknesses, they are included in the universal programs by default since they address common errors, even though they may not apply to everyone.
Alternation of Large, Medium and Small Loads
Variability is an essential component of well-structured training. Only an intelligently planned sequence of loading and recovery contributes to a continuous increase in results.
A typical training cycle is structured in the following way.
Table 4. Weekly Loading Example
Large loading provides the greatest stimulus to the trainee and it creates the conditions for further increases in competition results. Moderate loading maintains the level of trainability, while small loading is employed for active restoration and contributes to super-compensation.
Another unique aspect of Sheiko’s programs is the use of step-loading. In short, the lifter begins the training cycle with his or her current 1RMs, using the same numbers until setting new 1RMs. Each training cycle ends with either a competition or a mock meet (for those who don’t compete). New maxes are then used to start the process all over again. So if the result of each lift increased by 10kg over the previous training cycle, the next begins with a corresponding increase in training maxes. Thus the magnitude of the stimulus to the trainee in the initial period of the new cycle is greater than if the loading had been more gradual (recall that large loading is the most effective for furthering competition results). By mid-cycle the body grows accustomed to the increased load and, following a taper to the competition/mock meet, is ready to take the next step in loading.
The universal programs all come with a standard tapering to the competition (or mock meet). However, because of different recovery abilities, Sheiko has some additional competition tapering variants on his forum. The modification from one tapering type to another can be as simple as switching the weeks around.
Quick Wrap Up
Sheiko’s programs use a methodical approach to building the competition exercises and work well right out of the box for many people. At the same time, they are versatile starting points for lifters with more individual needs and are easily modifiable, provided there is a good understanding of the basics of Sheiko.