Long Term Skill Acquisition in Powerlifting

Written by: Kevin Cann


I have had this conversation quite a few times in the last week and I think it makes a very interesting topic.  I view strength as a skill. Not just the technique of the lifts, but the actual physiological adaptation.


The definition of a skill is “the ability to do something well, expertise” and “A particular ability.” If we are really good at something, we even identify it as a strength.  Developing a skill is also a dynamic process.


In skill development there are progressions, regressions, skips, and jumps.  This is the same as in strength training.  Developing strength is also a dynamic process.  It is a dynamic process that the coach needs to understand both short term and long-term pieces of.


In most sports there are long term skill development plans.  I played soccer growing up so I will use that as an example.  At 5 years old the ball was smaller, the field was smaller, the goals were small without goaltenders, and the number of kids on the field was far less than 11.


The reasons for all of this go far beyond what many understand.  The ball being smaller allowed the kids to develop appropriate skills for kicking the ball.  If they used the larger adult sized ball this would alter mechanics to move the heavier ball and have an impact in the long term on kicking skills.  The goal is for the kids to self-organize into appropriate kicking technique within a game.


The field was smaller because the kids are smaller.  A larger field would not be appropriate for the speed and size of the current players. It would be a very different game with in game skill development being something that would not carry over as much.


The goals were smaller without a goaltender to encourage kids to shoot and aim for a target.  If a goalie was in the net there may be hesitation from the kid to shoot.  There may also be a focus developed on the goalie instead of the target.  The goal being smaller allows them to self-organize to a technique that allows them to put the ball in a smaller space.


The smaller sided games are actually to avoid swarming to the ball.  This helps to teach appropriate spacing on the field that will carry over to later on.  All of these pieces serve a purpose.


In powerlifting I think many forget this.  They want everything right now.  I understand this modern day thinking with the internet being a highlight reel of people hitting big weights.  Athletes need to understand where they are in their journey and how to appropriately set themselves up for the long term.


Most lifters start powerlifting later in life.  This isn’t a sport that many start at a young age here in America.  There are a few and they just happen to be the best coaches around now.  We need to understand this part in the beginning.  It isn’t about starting them at lower volumes and building them up.


These lifters have developed strengths and weaknesses based off of their experiences.  At this stage in their life their perceptions, beliefs, and sociocultural surroundings have molded them into the human in front of us. This means education is a big part of our job in the beginning.


As a coach we want to develop the whole athlete.  Many of the current world champions come from a bodybuilding background and the Eastern Europeans have about 10 years of GPP work before their training becomes specific. This builds a great foundation to build the lifter.


This is not usually the case here.  Most programs will call for high volumes of competition lifts.  This can yield fast progress off of the bat, but it can hinder the athlete later on.  This is one reason why I believe lifters see progress for the first couple of years and then there is a drop-off in total or a sustained plateau.


Kerry had asked/yelled at me the other day “Why hasn’t my deadlift moved in years!?”  This is one reason why I believe it has been stuck. I wasn’t attempting to build the complete athlete.  I was only attempting to strengthen her comp stance deadlift.


Kerry competes in a medium stance sumo where her knees will straighten and back will round under heavier weights.  This can’t be fixed from this position and to build a resilient athlete as well as strengthen weaknesses we need to alter angles.  This shifts emphasis to different muscles that have been ignored and punishes less efficient positions by disallowing the lifter to complete the task.


For Kerry this means a lot of wide stance sumo deadlifts.  This will strengthen her hips to take some pressure off of her back to pull. If the hips and legs catch up to her back strength, there is a huge pull to be had there.  However, I kind of fucked up there and it is going to take time.


She trained with that less efficient position for 4 years.  This isn’t as simple as putting a variation in for a block and everything is ok. She competed with a wide stance deadlift at the Arnold and we have continued to build it from there.  She has already doubled a weight that didn’t budge a month ago.  There is still a lot of work to be done here to get it where we need it to be.


I hindered Kerry’s long-term progress by not being a good enough coach.  Thanks Kerry for sticking with me through all of this.  I remember Sheiko saying that a world class lifter needs a world class coach.  Kerry had an elite deadlift when she started, I was not ready at the time to handle that.


Luckily, she was not elite in the other 2 lifts and we have had increases in total each year due to those continually growing.


I asked Sheiko how I get to that level.  He said that I must think about powerlifting 20 hours a day.  The rest of the time is spent training.  I think there was about an hour break per day where I could think of something else.  Reasonable.


I have literally done that since that day.  It has brought me down some fun rabbit holes and has gotten me to this point.  Without Kerry’s deadlift we are probably not seeing the results we are today as a group.


Some will argue that that is just how she pulls.  Yes technically it is, but it is definitely inefficient and will have a lower ceiling than if we correct those issues.  Those issues cannot be corrected with lighter weights.


I would sit there and give her a lot of feedback on each repetition in training.  This is not usually my style, but I think my frustration coming out as trying to do too much and fix it with words.  This feedback is not appropriate.


Our jobs as coaches is to guide discovery for more efficient positions.  I was having a good conversation about this with Alyssa. Alyssa is a PhD candidate for educational leadership.  She is doing some research on this topic and how it applies to learning.


Even though it is intended for the classroom, the same principles apply to skill acquisition.  The research shows a lot of support for guided discovery groups performing much better than groups receiving a lot of feedback.


Basically, these studies are usually setup where one group receives a lot of instruction from an administrator while another group will be given the same task except with constraints placed upon it to help them discover the appropriate behavior.


Oftentimes the instructional group will perform better in the earlier tests.  However, upon coming back and being forced to recall the information they tend to score much lower than the guided discovery groups.


This means that the feedback you give a lifter today may make the lift look better, but in the long run, or under higher stress, the ability to recall it will be lower.  This is why I follow a constraints-led approach.


A constraints-led approach allows me to alter the task in a way that punishes less efficient positions by disallowing the athlete to complete the task.  It also allows me to place the athlete into all kinds of various positions to see where their strengths and weaknesses are.


From there we get a good glimpse of the whole athlete.  We can then build a complete lifter that is strong at all angles.  This builds resiliency as well as an increased skill of strength.  These changes in angles are the feedback for the lifter.


Instead of focusing on my words they are focused on completing the task at these different angles. Different angles that are usually punishing their positions that they tend to fallback too.  The sensory input that they receive is their feedback. Feedback that will have higher recall rates under higher stress conditions, like heavier weights or a competition.  We also load these positions up with heavy weights respectfully.


Every athlete predicts movements before they occur.  Every repetition they perform gives feedback that gets put into this predictive process. Over time we have a higher level of skill because this is more subconscious than conscious attention.  A coach’s words are conscious attention.


When our lifters are surfing Instagram, these perceptual processes are also being updated.  This is why education is so important.  This is why it is also important to be adaptable as a coach.  It is not as easy as this variation will fix this problem.


Each athlete is different in how they learn.  Tweaks to these exercises will need to be made.  The human is also dynamic.  They are constantly changing initial conditions that the coach needs to be aware of and make the appropriate decisions.


My understanding of this has made me change how I write the programs quite a bit.  I no longer write number of sets.  I let each athlete decide that based off of how each day goes. I will write the exercise, reps, and suggested top weight.  They adjust accordingly.


Through this process we have a lot of conversations.  These conversations help educate each lifter on making appropriate decisions.  I feel this is the best way to address all of the things that we know can positively and negatively affect training.


Fatigue: What Do We Really Know?

Written by: Kevin Cann


There is an old saying “The more I learn the less I know.”  I think this statement misses the mark quite a bit.  To be honest, the more I learned, the more I thought I knew.  If you truly want to know something you need to be observant.


Observing lifters going through training will tell you what you know and what you don’t know.  I had Jacob Tyspkin on the podcast, and he made a great point.  He said that general principles are all right until you narrow them down for the individual.


As coaches when we are trying to learn more, we are reading articles and books.  We are looking for answers in every place but the place that can give us those answers.  The only place where that answer lies is within each individual in front of us.


This is hard though. This requires us to develop our skills as a coach.  Learning to write a program is easy, learning to actually coach takes time.  I am still learning these lessons.


We have these general beliefs about volumes and fatigue management.  Like Tsypkin said, these general principles are true until we narrow it down for the individual.  When you look at this from an individual perspective it is very messy.  In fact, it is chaos.


If we were as simple as machines that just adapted to mechanical stress than we could predict and reproduce results based off of mechanical stress.  However, that is very rarely the case.  In my experiences results have never been reproducible.


We may get positive results from the same stimulus, but the extent of those results always is different. For example, maybe adding in pause squats led to a 10lb squat PR in a block, but the next time you use them you only get a 5lbPR, or 15lb PR.  It is never the exact same.


Of course there are other variables that go into that but using that example so you can see what I am saying.  Strength is not a linear process so why would we apply linear strategies to it?  If we truly want to know the answers, we need to ask the individual.


How do we do this?  We can’t just go up to our lifters and be like “Hey, what are the best volumes for you?”  They would have no idea.  However, they do have that answer and a well-constructed program can help you find those answers.


I gave the lifters freedom to come and get after it as long as they were physically and psychologically capable of it.  What I witnessed was pretty amazing.  When I started coaching, I would structure programs with high, medium, and low stress days.


I have never been a fan of classic deloads.  They never made a lot of sense to me.  Having a well laid out plan with enough high stress days to drive results, medium stress days to maintain, and lower stress days for recovery made more sense to me.


Around this same time I began working with Jeremy Hartman.  We had a good conversation about coaching, and he gave me a documentary to watch.  This documentary was about the weightlifter Dimas who won medals in 4 Olympics.


One part of this documentary really stood out to me.  He had said it took 3 years for him to get used to the new coaching style.  He went from a Soviet Training System to the Bulgarian Method.  This seemed difficult for him.


He didn’t totally buy in at first.  He asked the coach for more volume.  The coach collaborated with him and told him that he can take more warmup sets.  Over time Dimas adapted to it and the results were remarkable.


There are a couple of things here that caught my attention.  For one, the coaches willingness to collaborate for buy in.  This is more important than many think.  Also, that once he bought in and believed in the system, he not only adapted but excelled.


Learning more about the Bulgarian Method, coming from a Soviet System, was interesting to me as well. The Soviet System yielded great results within the Soviet Union.  However, here in America the results were not quite the same and I have a best guess for that.


In the Soviet Union they go to schools where powerlifting is a class subject.  They are taught all about the Soviet System.  Their perceptions and beliefs are that it is the best for strength training.  Here in America we do not have schools like that, we have Instagram.


The perceptions and beliefs of the American lifter is very different.  American lifters do not have the same beliefs in their coach either. This is why you see them constantly jump from coach to coach.  Cultural aspects are also a part of physiological strength along with the perceptions and beliefs of the lifter.


The Soviet System works well in Russia.  This is lots of submaximal volumes.  The Bulgarian Method works well over there.  This is less volume and more heavy sets.  Both of these programs work when it is in line with the perceptions and beliefs of the lifter and they have a good relationship with the coach. Again, it comes down to the individual.


I want to take into account all of this stuff with a program.  I want to structure the program in a way that is in line with their perceptions and beliefs, and that accounts for general strength principles at an individual level.


In doing so, I had to forget about a lot of what I thought I knew.  I set up training in a way that gave as much flexibility as I think I can, and I just observed.  What I observed was that volumes don’t matter anymore than what the lifters perceive them to.


There is no magical number of lifts or tonnage for each lifter.  Our understanding of overload is weak at best.  If the lifter feels they got a good training stimulus, chances are they did.  We are led to believe that as we train, we build up fatigue, see a dip in performance, deload, and supercompensate and come back stronger.  This isn’t true either.


This works sometimes and doesn’t work others.  It also never works exactly the same way.  However, many times we hit PRs in the middle of training blocks when fatigue should be high.  So what does this mean?


This tells me that the general idea of mechanical stress overload and supercompensation is poorly understood.  We need to let performance dictate decisions and when performance decreases, we need to stop and think for a minute.


If performance decreases and you believe that the fatigue aspects are true, you will do whatever you can to dissipate that fatigue.  This may work, but it very well may not work.  In cutting down work and deloading here you may actually limit the adaptations of the lifter.


Chances are if they just kept plugging away, they would adapt and come out stronger.  This is of course assuming that there are no glaring physical pains that are negatively effecting performance.


We definitely need enough training to elicit a training stimulus.  All my lifters get 1 to 2 hard sets as we call them.  These sets are anywhere from an RPE 8.5 or higher.  We do this every training day unless the lifter has some soft tissue thing flaring up.  Even then we may just tweak the exercise and carry on as usual.


What I have learned from doing this and just observing is that fatigue does not affect performance like we think.  In many cases lifters will start to feel a little banged up, like elbow pain, or back tightness, or knee pain.  We keep at it and the pain goes away and they start hitting these continuous PRs.  That is adaptation right there.


If the pain is altering mechanics or decreasing performance, we don’t just plow through.  We make the adjustments that are needed in those scenarios. There is the athlete taking their low stress day for recovery.  Most of these pains recover very quickly.


I actually think pain and “fatigue” in powerlifting is more psychological.  This doesn’t mean it is in your head.  It is physical pain wherever you are feeling it.  However, there isn’t tissue damage.  You can still make the pain worse too so hear me carefully.


Outside of the acute fatigue that builds up within a training day, the days after are also more psychological in my theory.  The recovery aspects of training from a physical standpoint are quick.


This doesn’t mean you just say you are ok, and you are.  This is happening at the subconscious level and it is tied to our beliefs, perceptions, and emotions as well as our cultural upbringing.  Those that played sports tend to recover “faster” in my experiences.


I also believe this can be trained, but it requires a strong relationship between the athlete and coach. This requires strong communication between the two.  With that said we shouldn’t be afraid of fatigue.  There is a lot to be gained from training in a fatigued state and still hitting PRs.


Once the PRs stop it is time to change the stimulus and repeat it all over again.  This usually means we alter the exercise a bit to attack what I see as a weakness.  This weakness is either a strength issue or an efficiency issue.  We feel out the exercise and then right back to loading it up.

Flexible Programming


Written by: Kevin Cann


I have made a drastic change to the way I write my programs.  Ever since I started coaching this sport, I have tracked a lot of data. I tracked tonnage, number of lifts, average intensity, percent of lifts performed as competition, and ACWR (acute chronic work ratio).


Over the last several months I have kind of thrown out this data and focused on coaching.  I still used these Excel spreadsheets to write and deliver the program, but in the gym, I made calls on a day to day basis.


When I made these calls, I was not looking at the sheets and had no idea how these calls would affect any of this stuff.  I expected results to be better, but how much better they were was amazing to me.


This led me to making drastic changes with the way the program is delivered.  If you go back and read my articles and listen to my “flows of consciousness” on the podcast, you could see this coming.


I have discussed how 1RM was a constantly changing number on a day to day basis, how tonnage and volumes are poorly understood, how we monitor fatigue is inaccurate, how we are dynamic systems to learn motor control, and mechanical stress is just a small piece of everything.


I have discussed self-organizing technique.  I use a constraints-led approach where I alter the task to help guide the lifter to self-organize into more efficient technique.  We do this while monitoring estimated 1RM to be sure our changes aren’t leading us down a wrong path.


This has worked very well for my lifters.  It is not like humans are only dynamic systems when we talk about motor control. The human is a dynamic system in its entirety.  We need a dynamic program to be flexible and adapt to the changing needs of that person in front of us.


Learning a lot about chaos theory has helped me understand the complexity of this math.  No matter how much data I collect and use for my decision making, I will always miss the mark at some point.  The Excel spreadsheet will not be more accurate at decision making then I will be.


The reason for this is even if we collect data about mood and perceived effort, the data is not sensitive enough for it to work in an A.I. type program.  The coach with his or her knowledge base and experience is much more able to make the best decisions for the lifter.


I currently am writing the programs with exercise, sets, reps, and my suggested top weights.  None of these are set in stone.  I want to find a way to make the sets and reps more flexible, but there has to be rules.


The lifters have all of the power from here.  The suggested top weights are based off of previous performances.  If the weights feel heavy, they will adjust.  If the top sets are not heavy enough, they will adjust.


They are to do 1-2 hard sets each day as long as everything feels good.  These hard sets are done between RPE 8.5-9.5.  If they can complete all sets there and feel they should, they will. If they want to take less sets or more sets, they can.


This may sound like I am not doing much anymore in terms of coaching and “programming.”  I had a good talk with Dave about this and he made a very mature observation.  He said that the program is probably the least important part of getting stronger. It is about trust in the process and working your ass off.


I don’t disagree with Dave’s statement at all.  The program is probably the least important piece of getting stronger because it is rigid and not changing with the athlete.  Some of the other lifters were concerned that there wasn’t much structure to the program anymore.


They were used to coming in and just doing what was on the sheet until I told them to do something different.  There is still structure to the programs.  In fact, the structure is more complex.


Rules still govern the structure.  There are hard sets where intensity is high, multiple sets for volume, variations to help guide technical efficiency, and most programs are 4 days per week.  These rules are just not set in stone anymore.


We know that none of those above variables are the same for everyone.  At times we pretend we know they are.  Things like “High frequency is superior”, “That program is too low volume to work”, “You can’t lift heavy on a daily basis”, “Technique does or doesn’t matter.”  I could go on forever.


This takes us back to Dave’s statement about the program not being the most important thing.  All of these different programs work for different people.  In fact, many lifters jump from program to program and see success for a time period on each one.


Many will yell about the research out there.  Here is the thing about the research.  The study subjects are recruited, and they perform a new program for a short period of time.  Is it the periodized program leading to those results or the novelty of a new program?


The perception of the lifter is what matters most.  Lifters seek out coaches and programs because they believe that they will work.  This is what I believe drives that progress with a newer program.


This newer program meets the lifter where they are at, at that given time.  Over time the lifter changes and adapts.  The program stops working and they look for something different.


My goal is to create a program that identifies these changing needs and the program is flexible enough to change based off of them.  The lifters will self-organize into volumes, intensities, and frequencies that are best for them at a given moment in time.


This will require a lot of communication between myself and the lifters.  We are still going to track data, but it is going to be much simpler. They will use a mood score entering the gym, RPEs for lifts, and a session score at the end.


This mixed with communication will get processed by my intuition to make the best decisions to help guide each lifter to what works best for them at that given time.  The more I learn and the more experience I get, the better this decision making will become.


I am done looking for answers in an Excel spreadsheet.  I am going to train my coaching abilities.  The mind is a hypothesis testing machine.  I am actually getting rid of the spreadsheets all together.


Large amounts of data like that can create a confirmation bias that I do not want to alter my decisions. Also, the colors like green, yellow, and red will create a change in my decisions whether it is conscious or subconscious.


We will measure performance to make sure our decisions are leading us in the right direction.  I think the flexibility is important in the programming because this sport is way more psychological than people think.


The math suggests that strength gains are infinite.  I don’t think the math is wrong.  I think a lifter’s perceptions will limit the weight on the bar at some point.  Elite athletes usually have this irrational confidence in themselves.  It definitely distinguishes them from others.


There are acute fatigue factors that build up in a training session.  However, how long does it take for the person to recover from them?  It certainly doesn’t take that long.  Your CNS is not fried like you think.


If we take a hard triple on the squat, it probably takes 9 seconds.  This is 2 plays in the NFL.  Context is everything here.  We recover much quicker from this than many think.  From a physical standpoint.  Perhaps our perceptions are what holds us back in this situation?


Any lingering drops in performance, in my theory, comes from something psychological.  The pain that we experience from training is the same thing. It is not due to tissue damage. It is more psychological in nature.


This doesn’t mean it is in your head.  The pain is where you are feeling it.  Sometimes we train through it and sometimes it is better not to piss it off.  We alter positions for a few days and go from there.  It matters, but it isn’t structural.


This explains the high rates of individuality seen with this.  I also feel this can be trained to improve.  However, having a flexible program that meets the needs of the lifter addresses these individual differences.  It also addresses the changing individual.


If these internal factors are more important on a macroscopic scale how do we measure them? As of right now I believe the answer is we can’t measure them in a sensitive enough way to get the information we desire.  We need to trust our education and experience to make these decisions.


I believe there is a lot of strength to be had out of self-efficacy.  I will expand on these topics at a later time as this article is getting longer and longer.  I am open to questions and discussions on this stuff as well.  Keep that in mind.

My First Theory: Mechanical Stress and Perception

Written by: Kevin Cann


I started this coaching thing by mimicking my coach.  I was fortunate enough to have one of the greatest coaches in this sport at the time and for 3 years.  Over time my network grew, and my learning expanded.


My network includes other powerlifting coaches as well as physical therapists.  I am lucky enough to call these people my friends at this point. We have had many interesting conversations that have made me think and challenged me in many ways.


I have read extensively about dynamic systems and made many changes to the ways in which I do things. I think I am ready to finally talk about my first theory in regard to powerlifting.  This theory concerns mechanical stress.


Mechanical stress is what makes up the majority of the focus in powerlifting.  This stems from Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome.  We overload a lifter with volume, we deload, and we supercompensate and come back stronger.


A typical example in programming is 3 weeks of increases in volume, followed by a deload, and then starting it all over again.  Daily undulated periodization is a commonly used periodization model that alters volumes and intensities in a bit of a different structure.


I have focused quite a bit on the mechanical stress in the past.  I tracked total tonnage, number of lifts, average intensities, and even more breakdowns of those numbers.  This assumes that the principle of overload is correct.


If the overload principle was correct wouldn’t we be able to predict and reproduce results?  This just is not true.  Sometimes liters hit PRs in the middle of a block when volume is high and then those numbers aren’t there on the platform when we taper down dropping fatigue and compete.  Shouldn’t that lifter be supercompensated?


That same lifter may have performed well under those exact same guidelines previously.  Training is completely unpredictable.  In fact, it would be chaotic.  To understand a chaotic system we need to view it from a macroscopic lens and attempt to find trends with these irregularities.  This is no easy task and to be honest the math might just be way too complex to actually figure out.


When we encounter a complex system, we can make many large mistakes in trying to tame it.  We tend to like to focus on mechanical stress because it is easy to see and easy to track.  It can give us a lot of data points and make us feel like we have a lot of answers.


These answers will most certainly work.  It may even work most of the time.  My question is, what happens when it doesn’t?  Do you continue to do the same thing until it does?  Do you chalk it up to nutrition or outside stress or sleep?  Even those have poor correlations to predicting performance.


We know all of these things, including mechanical stress, matters in strength training.  How much do they matter and how we monitor these aspects is above our paygrades.  My guess is this math is so complex that to make it work it may need imaginary numbers and exist in the complex plane, a plane that we can’t even see.


RPEs get closer to understanding this.  The RPE is a simple number that takes into consideration the human element of the lifter. Their perceptions of how hard the weight is and how hard the training is, is monitored.


As coaches we take these numbers and instead use them to dictate intensity of training.  Instead of putting a percentage on the sheet we may use RPEs or both.  I am not just here shitting on other coaches, I do this as well.


I am actually taking a step back from this as I test my theory on mechanical stress.  I have kind of been testing it the last few months in person by dictating training outside of what is on their program.  However, here is my theory:


Mechanical stress only matters as much as the lifter perceives it to


I have reread Kiely’s articles every day for the last few weeks.  This has literally been a problem that I have been attempting to solve since I started coaching.  The irregularities in training volumes and intensities and how they relate to performance has been eating me up for years.


You can go back in time and see my frustrations with this in older articles.  The lifter in front of you is one human.  You cannot separate the body from the mind.  We know perceptions are important for motor control, pain, and strength.


Modern stress research has taken us from Selye and showed us the importance of emotions, cognitions, and perceptions to all of these aspects.  Those values differ for each person in front of you and they differ for that person on a day to day basis.


If I truly want to find trends in irregularities for each individual, I need to fully embrace self-organization. I only have embraced that with technique.  I was writing out all of the lifters’ warmups and volumes daily.  I can’t find these trends if I don’t allow the lifters to see what works best for them.


I am making a major change in how I deliver the programs.  We have rules in regard to navigating training.  One of the biggest rules is effective communication between the 2 of us.  Typically we take 1-2 hard sets per day, per lift.  These hard sets should rate between RPE 8.5-9.5.  I believe effective sets are more important than any other measurement for mechanical stress.


The lifter has the option to not take hard sets if they don’t feel like it.  This is where communication is key.  They also have the option to take more if they feel they can. This goes against the norm in many cases because of the concerns with fatigue.  I am not sure those concerns are warranted and even if they are it is impossible to measure.  If it is there, we take it.  If it isn’t, we don’t.


I am no longer using fancy Excel spreadsheets to build out training.  Instead I will give a range of hard-set weights that I feel the lifter should shoot for.  Again, if they don’t feel great training, they can decrease that weight and if they feel good, they can go up.  I will also write the total number of sets and reps without recommended weights.  I am planning on even giving some more flexibility here as well.


I will let the lifter select what they feel is appropriate.  At the end of the training session they will rate how hard the session was.  From that information we will build out the following week.  My goal is to help each lifter self-organize into frequencies, volumes, and intensities that work best for them at that current time in their training.  Remember this is always changing.


I feel my job as a coach is just to help guide the ship.  I believe self-efficacy is important for strength development.  The current research supports this theory. It is difficult as a coach to give up so much control to the lifter.


Many may think that over time the lifters will not need me anymore.  I could not disagree more.  My intuition is based off of a data set of everything I see and everything I know. It is much more advanced than an Excel spreadsheet.


I also feel what I am doing with self-organization requires a higher skill level from the coach.  It requires an analysis of irregular trends that are difficult to understand.  It requires me choosing the right task for the learner and setting up training in an effective way to ensure that person is self-organizing into the best situation for that lifter.


This requires knowing more about the lifters than just their 1RMs and previous training.  This is just a quick overview.  Perhaps in the next article I will go into greater scientific detail why I feel my theory is less wrong.

Is It Time to Move on From My Data?

Written by: Kevin Cann


I have written about my change of focus coaching over the past 5 or 6 months.  I have mentioned how I have way more questions than answers. This was a drastic shift in my thinking as I believed that I had more answers than questions before.


How could I not think that I had all of the answers?  I have this amazing Excel spreadsheet that tracks everything that is important.  It tracks ACWR (acute: chronic work ratio), tonnage, number of lifts, percentage of those lifts that are competition lifts, average intensity, breakdown of tonnage based off of squat, bench press, and deadlift.


With all of this data I should have been able to guarantee progress for everyone.  However, this just did not happen.  The ACWR would drop below the recommended .8 for 2 weeks before a competition.  The competition would be a spike in workload, but no one was getting hurt.


This worked the other way around as well.  A few lifters tweaked some things when their ACWR was around 1.0.  This is far below the 1.5-2.0 that is recommended to avoid going over.  At other times it could be over 2 for weeks and the lifter would feel great.


I had also noticed there was a huge individual difference with this number.  I brought this up on my podcast with Gabbett and he said this was common.  He also said that this is a monitoring tool and shouldn’t be used to make decisions. The coach needs to use his gut.


I track tonnage as well. This is the data I use to calculate the ACWR.  I would also try to push tonnage to drive results.  This would work sometimes but would not work other times.  This can be said about all of the other data points. Sometimes they helped, sometimes they didn’t.


If I plotted these points on a graph, they would be chaotic.  It is easy to disregard the outliers and chalk up those to something different.  That is just not my personality.  I tend to become hyper focused on the outliers because I feel the answers to larger questions lie out there.


You can see how much I have focused on this over the years with my articles.  This led me to an understanding that strength training is nonlinear. When I first understood that I kind of just threw my hands in the air and accepted it for what it was.


I began to learn more about nonlinear systems.  I started with skill acquisition and a constraints-led approach.  This made me realize that not every lifter was going to learn the same way or react the same way to a training stimulus.


This offered me some insight into how to deal with the progressions, regressions, skips, and jumps of a nonlinear system.  I decided to treat strength as a skill since it is nonlinear and requires nonlinear theory to solve.


I decided to stop structuring my training in the high volume/low intensity, followed by a drop-in volume and increased intensity, followed by increased specificity.  This was assuming that strength is linear and falls within a definitive timeline.  It does not.


This led to me read more about chaos theory in an attempt to understand irregularities.  One part of the current book I am reading really caught my attention.  This scientist named Lorenz was working on weather forecasting.


At the time everyone was hung up on Newtonian math.  The more accurate we are with the initial conditions the better our prediction will be. Lorenz asked what would happen if he started from a data point in the middle instead of with the initial conditions. His answer really resonated with me.


Each starting point yielded a very different outcome.  I went back and reread Kiely’s article “Periodization Paradigms in the 21stCentury: Evidence-led or Tradition-Driven?”  I reread it maybe 4 times.  This time with a much better understanding of dynamic systems.


I made a connection to what Lorenz was talking about with strength training.  Each day that a lifter comes into the gym they are a different person.  Those initial conditions are very far removed.  The further removed we are from them the less value they have in our predictive capabilities.


This means that we need an extremely flexible and adaptable program.  I rely more heavily on my intuition to make these changes than the data I possess.  I believe the data is actually very flawed.


I know there are many coaches out there that use data driven plans.  Many of these coaches are high level and have experienced more success than me.  This is solely my take on this and how I do things.


The data is based off of strength being a linear process.  In order for us to accept this we would need to disregard the outliers.  All training works, but we are trying to be the best possible.  In many cases the data doesn’t offer any answers to the question about the person in front of you.


One of my newer lifters, Marilyn, is a pretty smart chick.  She made a comment that really resonated with me.  She said that intuition just may be data collection done by the coach. Perhaps this is processed consciously and subconsciously based off of what I see.


This makes a lot of sense to me.  But what do I do with my fancy Excel spreadsheets and how do I collect data more efficiently?  One thing that I say a lot to my lifters is that the body only knows effort and the brain is what knows the weight on the bar.


Now, I feel we need to train the brain in this scenario in seeing some of those heavier weights, but ultimately perceived effort may be a better indicator of how hard a training session was instead of tonnage.


I think as coaches we like using things such as tonnage because it is easy to measure and track. We like having answers.  I am at the point now where I feel there aren’t any right answers, just less wrong ones.


I am not looking for something fancy to track this perceived effort.  Just maybe a number for me to know.  Perhaps I don’t even use numbers and just have them write some notes. These notes can go into my intuition to make decisions.


I am at the point where I know every number, I put on this will be wrong at times and there are no definitive answers, so I don’t want to spend time and money on something fancy. I am also going to start just giving number of sets to complete and ranges for weights, giving the lifter more freedom on a day to day basis.


I am done tracking all sets over 50% of 1RM.  I just truly feel it does not matter anymore.  I think we need to practice enough to get stronger.  I think some of this practice needs to be heavy, at least with RPE.  I just need to know how hard a lifter is perceiving that training to be.


Exercises will be decided based off of a constraints-led approach to improve technical issues that I deem to be important.  This variations will be individualized and heavy based off of RPE.


I will track how many hard sets each lifter does as well as performance.  I will make decisions based off of this and how each lifter is currently feeling.  I think our understanding of recovery from training is extremely limited.


Your CNS doesn’t take weeks to recover from overshooting an RPE.  I think at most you see around 4 days from bigger and stronger lifters.  I also believe that these efforts can be trained to be improved.


For example, if you have a lifter that is overly hyped all of the time, take their hype away.  Maybe go no music and they do the best they can under those constraints.  Teach them to not be so emotional when they lift.  This should be addressed the other way too.


If a lifter is constantly getting stressed out over their technique or their feels in training, this needs to be addressed.  Emotions have direct effects on physiological aspects and should not be disregarded.


My personal experience, not wearing my gear for a few weeks after a coopetition is actually a nice mental break from training.  For me there is a psychological piece to getting ready to lift.  Throwing on some flats and going bypasses this.  Just some food for thought.


Risk of injury in this sport is extremely small.  You will feel pain sometimes, this does not mean injury.  I just don’t see lifting leading to structural damage in the raw and drug free powerlifter.  Pain in these cases is less structural in nature and probably more psychological.



This does not mean we ignore pain.  This means we talk about it.  We see where the lifter’s head is at and if it is too uncomfortable, we alter positions for a couple training sessions and go from there.  My best guess is that this is a sign of fatigue, whether mental or physical.



I just do not think that my data captures the complexity of the human.  I am not sure any can.  I think at this point the best data to collect is to monitor performance and have effective communication with each lifter.  We may be able to even put a score on this communication to be able to compare it to other training days.


I am leaning towards rating each training day based off of perceived effort.  Just need to narrow down a scale that works best.