Written by: Kevin Cann
This is a question every coach should think about for a minute. It is kind of fun, and perhaps not so black and white. Science tends to reduce complex systems into its parts and make some giant assumptions that the sum of those parts equals the whole.
This reductionist approach may have served the medical community well at times, but when we look at behavior and skill it tends to take an open complex system and close it. We are dealing with one human not a bag of 650 muscles plus 1 brain.
Even our research tends to reduce the human body into a bag of muscles. When researchers look at the squat, they tend to use EMG to look at individual muscle groups at various locations of the squat. I am not saying that this research is completely useless, but I am also not sure what it really tells us.
These studies are usually performed on untrained participants. Their skill levels within the lift tend to be very low. This may just be an example of Bernstein’s degrees of freedom problem. The human body has a very large number of movement options to choose from to complete a task.
When presented with a new problem, the body will limit the amount of movement options available. Through practice where movement is explored, the body will free up more degrees of freedom. This is where the movements being asked of the athlete tend to look more “fluid.”
Degrees of freedom is something that is impossible for a coach to measure on an Excel spreadsheet. Match this with a big cultural piece. In the 60s and 70s there was a fascination with bodybuilding in America. This is the time period where Arnold was at his peak.
These bodybuilders then found their way into movies as iconic action stars. America began to view being jacked as being strong. The logic of a larger muscle having greater potential to contract makes sense, but it just does not hold up to the scrutiny of science.
I am not saying muscle mass is not important, but instead the human body will adapt as it needs to, based off of the demands placed upon it. If we train with more specific weights to 1RM, we will still put on muscle mass, in many cases just as much as a hypertrophy focused program. I would argue that the body puts on the muscle mass it needs to complete that task and that more is not necessary.
You put all of this together and you have coaches obsessed with Excel spreadsheet numbers because they are measurable and allow us to feel safe in an uncertain world, analyzing lifts based off of EMG results of beginners, and adding in bodybuilding exercises to make them better at powerlifting.
The focus on one muscle group is a bodybuilding ideology. A program that looks like this is part powerlifting and part bodybuilding. I feel the majority of people that do this will be less than mediocre bodybuilders and powerlifters.
Now do not get me wrong. This style of training works for many. However, watch those lifters when they train. They are focused and bring intent to every repetition in training. For example, Westside uses a lot of accessories to get their volume in. However, watch those guys train. They absolutely fucking get after it from the second their hands touch the bar to the end of the training session. No matter what they do, they will get stronger with that attitude.
At the end of the day every program can work, especially if the lifters bring that attitude to it. You do not get weaker from training. However, we need to look at what is best to push the field forward.
When we were doing more Sheiko type stuff in the gym we would be spending 10-12 hours per week training. Now we spend no more than 6 hours per week training, and we are getting even stronger. For lifters with jobs and lives this is important.
I also think that this is important for longevity. Training half the time per week will save miles on each lifter. It just will not beat you up as much because you are not being required to do more than you have to.
Since this thinking dominates the strength sports what should we do instead? Bernstein’s degrees of freedom was published in 1967, it got lost amongst the culture of bodybuilding. I think we start there. A dynamic systems theory approach looks at the whole human as well as the environment in which they live instead of reducing the human into its parts. This is why I utilize this approach; it treats a non-linear open system as a non-linear open system.
We want to guide this system towards the technical efficiency and the strength necessary to be the best powerlifter that they can possibly be. In the literature, the closer we train to 1RM, the greater we increase 1RM. This is the law of specificity.
From there, the coach needs to have a good understanding of technique and how to teach and guide each lifter there. As Keith Davids says, “Training should have consequences.” The coach can place the lifter in positions that will punish the technical inefficiency. The punishment will be an inability to complete the task.
The heavy singles also force the lifter to be completely mentally involved in the training session. If they are worried about outside stress they will not perform up to their capabilities. This error teaches the lifter. It allows the coach and the lifter to constantly be analyzing strengths and weaknesses. This is something that lighter weights cannot do.
There may be some technical breakdown under lighter weights, but sometimes those breakdowns do not show up until the weight is heavier. The coach will never identify a mental weakness because there are no consequences to training with lighter weights.
There has to be technical and physical practice under heavier weights to truly get better at handling heavier weights as well. This is not to say that lighter weights do not have a place. They absolutely do. A good program should be utilizing all intensity ranges. I am a big fan of doing as many singles as possible that allows the individual lifter to recover. From there, we fill in the blanks with rep work.
I used to push the heavy stuff as long as I could and only pull back when the lifter feels they need to. The problem with this is eventually coaching becomes nothing more than being reactive to the day to day. I now take a bit more of a proactive approach. More is not always better.
Day 1 we have max effort squats, day 2 max effort bench, day 3 is rep bench work followed by max effort deadlifts, and day 4 is rep work for squats and pulls. The deadlift rotates weekly on day 3 between max effort work and lighter rep work.
If a lifter hits a true 10 on any of these lifts, we replace max effort work with rep work on the following week. This will usually be around 80% of that max effort lift so that the weights are pretty accurate and done for 4-5 sets of 2-3 reps. This was our “strength” day so to speak when we ran Sheiko stuff. This gives the lifter a built in psychological break too. 80% tends to be a weight most lifters can hit for at least 5 reps, this drops the intensity as well. This day is to maintain the strength qualities that are being developed.
A lot of studies do show burn out from higher intensity programs. Granted these are not studies on motivated powerlifters, and usually with a ridiculous amount of intensity and frequency, but still something we need to take into consideration. The lifters write RPEs for all sets in their sheets and this allows me to see how they are recovering.
I actually try to keep these intensities and volumes pretty stable so that I get a good gauge of their recovery abilities. After the heavy singles on bench and squat we do backdowns. I usually put 70% of the max effort lift for a 4×4. I tend to keep this the same on max effort days so that I can compare RPEs. If they are creeping up more than normal, I know I need to pull back a bit.
Some variations tend to be more difficult to recover from than others. This is completely dependent upon the individual lifter too. We run a variation for a 3 week wave. I learned that most variations run their course in 4-6 weeks so I decided to change it before then so I can use it again in the near future to gauge progress.
These variations are ones that will punish technical inefficiencies. If a lifter is pitching forward, we may use a wider stance with a high bar position. I require all my lifters to train in flats and 4-6 weeks out from a meet they are allowed to put the heels back on if they want.
That position will punish pitching forward, but also the flats and the wide stance targets the hips more. I will use that latter argument at times, but it is more to get buy in than me actually believing it. I just have a hard time believing that if a lifter’s knees cave in that their glute medius is weak. The glute medius is small and has a ton of leverage with its position on the hip. I just don’t think individual muscles like that can be weak. I think this is more of a skill problem.
This does not mean that these muscles cannot be targeted to become stronger. Certain angles are more technically efficient and put more emphasis on certain muscle groups. I know this sounds contradictory but being strong at certain angles is a skill. More often than not, a few months of targeting these angles and the lifter is hitting PRs from them.
Is this really due to individual muscles getting stronger, or is the lifter’s skill just improving? Again, is the body 650 muscles or 1 muscle?