Program Review – Sheiko

Boris Sheiko is arguably one of the greatest powerlifting coaches of all time. Among other things, he was the Russian powerlifting head coach for ages, is a qualified sport scientist, and has published a number of books on powerlifting. Usually when powerlifters refer to “Sheiko”though, what they mean is the system he created to turn strong people into world champions (or in my case, take a not-strong person and make me slightly less not-strong.)

When you get coached by Sheiko you train at his gym, and he writes you a program based on your specific needs. Sheiko also produced a series of numbered programs as part of one of his books, which were intended as examples, but people tend to just treat them as cookie cutter templates these days. If you’re interesting in having a look, you can find them over on the Sheiko Forum. These programs are presented as a series of four week blocks, each with a different focus and an identifying number. I have templates for about a dozen of these blocks, but far more (at least 40) exist. A series of blocks put together can make an effective macro-cycle.

I’ve run a total of about 8 months of  Sheiko, most recently running #37, #31 and a hybrid peaking block (#31/#32 hybrid) coming in to the 2015 NZPF National Championships. I’ve only done the three day variants, but there are also four and five day templates (his elite athletes train 8 times per week though!) Sheiko’s programs vary a lot week to week, but here’s an example training day for reference.

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This is #31, week 1, day 1. You are reading that correctly – Sheiko has you bench, then squat, then bench again, then squat again, then do some accessory work. If you look at the training session exercise by exercise, it doesn’t look too bad. “Four sets of two at 115 kg on bench? Pfft, I could do sets of five.” But then you have to bench again. Then do flys, or dips or whatever. Then you get a day off, but then on Wednesday you do it again. Sheiko wears you down by the sheer number of reps, around 1000 per month, and that’s excluding the accessories. (Four total compound exercises is somewhat unusual on Sheiko, three is the norm.)  These days are long, taking 2 1/2 to 3 hours per training is not unusual. Matt McGorry sums up his first encounter with a Sheiko program quite eloquently as “I was less than fully prepared for this.” 

In my standard Sheiko week I would squat on Monday and Friday, deadlift on Wednesday, and bench all three days. I also reserved Saturdays for finishing things off and extra bodybuilding work.

Sheiko has a number of positives and negatives, I’ll try to look at each in detail. Its worth bearing in mind here that these programs were never intended to be run as cookie cutters, but rather to be individualised to suit your specific needs.

First of all, Sheiko is a powerlifting system, through and through. Although the specific volume of the competition lifts is high, in general you’re not going to accrue enough volume to create hypertrophy. You get very, very good at the competition lifts. The relatively low working intensities mean that you can hit perfect rep after perfect rep. The volume and intensity adds up to (hopefully) a thousand perfect reps per month, and that means your skill at powerlifting improves a lot. The trainings are different all the time too, which is nice. Although a few rep schemes repeat a lot (5 x 3 at 80%, 4 x 2 at 85%) each day is still fresh.

The flip side of high specific volume is that there is very low variation in Sheiko. This was great when I was (even) more novice than I am now as it allowed me to practice a lot, but having nailed all of the easy technique gains, I need much more variation now. Low variation would also probably suit lifters who are already jacked and at the top of their weight class, which is not me. The other big downfall in Sheiko gives you relatively little time under heavy loads. Sheiko rarely goes above 85% even while peaking, and while that may be appropriate for elite raw lifters or most equipped lifters, for novice to intermediate raw lifters time under 90 to 95% loads (and overload) seems more important; it certainly is to me. The complex way which Sheiko manipulates volumes and intensities over each block can make it difficult for more scientifically minded lifters to figure out the best way to manipulate volumes, which is a big pitfall for some lifters.

These sessions are also really long, so that could be a barrier to some people, however they can easily be split down into 5 or 6 shorter days, while maintaining total volume.

I think Sheiko has provided a series of great templates. They do need to be modified to meet individual needs, and I don’t think they are appropriate year round, but they certainly have a place. I am personally fond of Sheiko, as it was doing Sheiko #32 I first squatted double my body weight. I wouldn’t be surprised if 5 by 3 at 80% was my go-to rep scheme for the rest of my lifting career.

My TLDR of Sheiko’s templates – they have a time and a place, and in that time and place I love them. Sheiko will grind you down over the course of weeks and rebuild you as a (probably very tired and annoyed) better powerlifter.

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