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From Sheiko to Where We Are Now

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

This article is going to go with a solo podcast I just recorded.  I discussed how I started and how we ended up doing things the way that we do them now.  This is going to be a quick addition as I believe that people think we do so many things different than we did before.

 

When we were mimicking a Sheiko program before we were using a specific number of lifts and average intensity based off of lifter classification.  We used percentages for these numbers.  Technique was the primary driver of exercise selection and those other factors.

 

We would squat 2 times per week, deadlift 2 times per week, and bench 3-4 times per week.  There would be high, medium, and low stress training days sprinkled throughout the block.  We would even do the dreaded double lift days.

 

Currently, I do not write sets, just exercise and suggested top weight.  There are no percentages and the top sets are just a range of RPEs from 8.5 to 9.5.  The frequencies of lifts shift around as well.  The rest of the information is lifter dependent.

 

The lifter chooses the number of sets based off of how the day is going and how they feel they need to warmup.  They have rules governing the top sets.  They are to get 1-2 at RPE 8.5-9.5.  I give a suggested weight, but they can adjust accordingly.  Sometimes it does not work well at first, but then they drop the weight and work back up and hit it.  Sometimes they don’t work back up.

 

If they do not work back up, that is a lighter or medium stress day.  They still have those; they just self-organize into them.  We get so hellbent on general principles being true that we think we can predict when the lifter will need a break and we think we can predict performance.  None of this is true.

 

The human body is pretty amazing.  There are all kinds of feedback loops that can dictate this process if we just listen. If fatigue is going to affect performance, we will see it by the top set being less than we anticipated.  Sometimes the lifter feels tired and still exceeds that number.

 

We need to embrace uncertainty and understand that we are not smarter than the human body.  I will vary frequencies based off of performance for the lifters.  Sometimes 3 days a week where we squat twice, bench 2-3 times, and deadlift once is better. Sometimes we need more.  It often will look exactly like it used to with 4 days per week.  Squats and deadlifts twice and bench 3-4 times.

 

We still use double lift days as I see appropriate.  I still use variations to attack the technical inefficiencies.  These variations make up the majority of the volume just like they did before.  I vary more now, where before everything was in comp stance or grip.  Now I move the lifters around in a bunch of different positions.

 

Instead of getting lots of sets for practice, I choose to have a more targeted approach where our practice will be more specific.  We will get the 1-2 sets at a very challenging weight.  Effort at the end might be the same, I just choose to use a heavier weight as I feel it is a different skill and has an emotional response from the lifter.

 

This is a constraints-led approach.  We get more deliberate practice, so we don’t need as much.  There was the old 10,000-hour rule that was believed to be true, but research suggests that it comes down more to the quality of training than the quantity.  How much each person needs are dependent on that person.  Everyone learns at a different rate.

 

Everyone has different stuff going on outside of the gym.  We do not know how this stuff can affect performance, but sometimes it may be best to just do 3 days as trying to get that 4thday in just becomes a stressor to them.  Sometimes performance stalls and we got to suck it up and get that 4thday in.

 

There are no answers. As a coach I feel we need to guide the process with the general principles in the back of our minds.  I learned the general principles from Sheiko, and you can still see how heavily our programs are influenced by him.  I choose to use 1 to 2 hard sets for the number of lifts and average intensity now, but technique is still first.  The structure changes throughout as I see fit, but much of it is still influenced from the structure I used under him.  It may seem very different, but it is not so different at all.

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My Conversation with Vince Anello

 

Written by Kevin Cann

 

I was fortunate enough today to have a talk with a legend of the sport.  I shared some stuff with our team, but I want to get it all down on paper and I think all of the people reading this will benefit from the information.

 

Vince Anello was the first person under 200lbs to deadlift 800lbs.  He deadlifted 820lbs at 198lbs bodyweight in 1982.  The timeframe here was important.  There wasn’t a lot of information out there for the sport at the time, so these guys had to figure it out.  He told me that they used phonebooks for boards on the bench!

 

The majority of coaches and athletes involved in powerlifting, have been involved in this sport for less than 5 years.  The lessons that these legends can teach has got lost in an egocentric world filled with 20 somethings that think they know everything.

 

The conversation started with Mr. Anello telling me that every program works.  However, it only works if the mental approach of the lifter is on point.  He told me that we need to be open minded about all aspects of strength training as we don’t know anything.

 

Right there I was sold. This is literally something that I say all of the time.  I use the phrase of “embrace uncertainty.”  He even said that we need to be comfortable with uncertainty.  The conversation only got better from here.

 

He went on to explain the process of training.  He said to allow the process to happen and don’t force it.  He said to let go and let guide and the movement patterns and the process will take care of itself.  This has literally been my coaching philosophy since October.  Sounds a lot like self-organizing to me.

 

The internet jumped on me when I showed week 1 of a program and how bare it looks.  They called me lazy and a shitty coach.  They told me that I am ripping people off for this coaching as well.

 

I give them a starting point, we observe how things are working, and we adjust as we see fit. The lifter fills in all of the other blank spaces in the program.  They decide the sets based off feel and the accessories based off their identification of their needs and what they like to do.  I supervise this process and teach them when there are teachable moments.  This is the process building itself. We do this together as a team.  We help each other and the decisions are made with both me and the lifter.

 

In light of all of the criticism I have received for my coaching it was nice to hear this from him. I care more about the opinion of someone that has been in this sport as long as he has and someone that has achieved so much.  I have a podcast with Dr. Loeneke that will be out next week that explains a lot of the science behind the reasoning for us lifting heavy more often instead of higher volumes.

Lots of these legends of the sport trained each lift one day per week.  Vince Anello was no different.  They got after it each week and basically maxed out for the reps of that given day.  Seems most started with 5 reps and worked up to singles (from what I could find).  They found exercises that attacked weaknesses and lifted them heavy.

I theorize that volume became more popular in strength training as our ability to track it became more pronounced.  The 70s seems to be when the hypertrophy contributes to strength training paradigm shifted without substantial evidence.  During this time Russian training systems were all of the rage, and shortly after the computer came onto the scene.  As the computer became more common in households, more coaches began to have access to Excel.  We can’t track conversations objectively, but we can track many of the external load data points in this sport.  Technology was the death of intuitive coaching.  I think it led to many coaches disregarding the words of past legends as well because it did not fit their limited knowledge base.  I can say this because it was me a couple years ago.

This is a sport without role models.  Raw lifting blew up onto the scene and the giants of the past were forgotten.  I feel if we learned more about where the sport started and where it came from there would be less negative commentary on the internet about different training styles.  This is a different conversation and I am going to save myself the frustration.

He made a very interesting comment that really resonated with me.  He said not to analyze your lifts.  That analyzing deters from performance.  This was really amazing to me.  I spoke about perfectionism and how it deters from performance on the Clinical Athlete podcast, episode 33.  We discuss a current paper on the topic.  He figured this out 20 years before there was even research on the subject matter.

We also discussed the mental aspects of training.  I am going to save the specifics for our group, but he truly believes the mental aspects are the most important aspects to train.  You can’t handle big weights physically if you are not mentally prepared. This is something we are really going to focus on as a group, no matter how weird people think that it is.

I am very excited to start utilizing some of this mental training that he suggested.  I think it will pay huge dividends for the entire group.  We have had some great conversations about the mental side of training as a group lately and this has already payed dividends.

It also brings us closer as a group and helps to drive further progress.  I encourage everyone to be open minded and skeptical of everything.  Just as Mr. Anello said, we don’t know anything.  Once I adopted this attitude our group started to have more fun and we have seen an explosion of totals.

Hierarchies and Hypertrophy

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

Mike Amato shared a term with me the other day that I think is very important to this article.  That term was “shared ontology.”  Shared ontology is basically something that has been conceptualized from generation to generation without ever being questioned.

 

An example of a shared ontology is religion.  There are some gospels in the strength world that have been passed down without any questioning.  The scientific foundation that these claims rest on were studies done on rats in the 1930s. We have come quite a bit further from this period of time.

 

We need to be skeptical and open minded to the ideas that we don’t know shit.  We are still in the infancy of trying to understand the complexities of the human mind and body.  Due to being in this infancy, we tend to utilize a reductionist view of things to attempt to make them make sense.

 

This assumes that the sum of the parts equals the whole.  This is not true in an open complex system.  I think that there is little disagreement that the human is an open complex system.  Things are not as logical or simple as they may seem.

 

If there is little disagreement that the human is an open complex system, why does no one question the reductionist viewpoints we have?  This does not make sense to me.  I posted a research article that suggests that hypertrophy may not be a contributor to strength improvements and the internet blew up.

 

The article suggested that the evidence is merely correlation at best and there are too many inconsistencies to say absolutely that hypertrophy contributes to increases in strength.  The argument for the other side is that a bigger muscle, theoretically has greater potential for contraction.

 

Therefore, you perform a hypertrophy block to build muscle and then a strength block to recognize the potential of that muscle.  This seems extremely logical and makes sense.  However, the research does not support this.

 

Even though there is no solid evidence to support this standing, no one questions it.  When someone does question it, like myself, I am blasted all over the internet.  I never said hypertrophy does not matter.  I said that focusing on it exclusively, or any excess work outside of typical training, is unnecessary.

 

We put on muscle from training.  It is an adaptation to the stress applied in the gym.  Our bodies are smarter than we are with this stuff.  It knows what it needs to accomplish a task.  Strength is specific to the task.

 

I may not have a huge total in powerlifting.  There are many lifters with much higher totals than me.  However, if they got on a wrestling mat with me, I bet I am a lot stronger than they are.  I bet the power of my punches and kicks are far superior to theirs.  Lifting, just like other sports is a skill.

 

I have been punched and kicked by guys that would not have good totals and it felt like a bag of bricks hitting me.  I am pretty positive that lifting more in the gym would not have made them stronger in their sport.

 

I don’t think we do much in the gym for athletes as strength and conditioning coaches.  We build some confidence and possibly some tissue resiliency. Problem with the second part is, it does not seem like we are decreasing injuries in sport no matter what we do. This is a conversation for another time.

 

You get better in a sport by practicing that sport.  This does not mean that we just take heavy competition singles every single time in the gym.  It means that we do drills to get better.  This is similar to all of the wrestling and striking drills that I performed over the years.

 

This means the coach needs to understand what the most efficient positions are for each lift and guide the lifter to self-organize to them.  I utilize a constraints-led approach here.  I put them in positions that punish the inefficient technique and only leave a few options to complete the task.  These options are what I deem as more efficient.  We measure objective performance to be sure it is working.

 

If I am unsure if something is going to contribute to increases in strength, I am not focusing on it. I never felt that running gave me an aerobic base for doing rounds in mma.  Doing rounds in mma gave me that endurance and that base.  This is how I feel about high rep sets of the lifts.

 

I think the benefit that people get from high rep sets is due to the novelty of the stimulus. There are many ways we can get that novelty.  We can change positions, TUT, use pauses, bands and chains, blocks and deficits, I use 5 and 4 reps to get used to an exercise and then 3/2/1 to load it up, so the changing of reps is novelty.  This allows the sport of lifting heavier weights to still be practiced.

 

I view accessory work as the powerlifter’s strength and conditioning.  We can build some tissue resiliency and instead of confidence, as that is derived in the sport itself, I can build self-efficacy.  They choose the accessories based off of where they think they need some extra work.

 

The strength is gained from the buy in and the self-efficacy.  Not necessarily the strengthening the weak muscles. Semantics I know, but it is important for the coach’s framework and decision making.

 

If hypertrophy is not a contributor to strength than what biological purpose does it serve?  For one, it allows us to accomplish the task.  It is an adaptation to the stress of training. A byproduct if you will.

 

It seems that perceptual and active inference are gaining a lot of steam in a number of fields.  We are learning that perception drives action and there is a hierarchical process to how we experience the world.

 

Higher levels within this hierarchy feed information down to the lower levels.  The passing on of the information is dependent upon the lateral levels assessing them for error and noise.  My best guess is that strength at specific angles and individual muscle strength are lower level attributes.

 

These lower level attributes are dependent upon the higher levels.  These higher levels involve expectations, experiences, and beliefs.  These priors are what we are attempting to update as a coach.  We need to create enough feedback for the lateral levels to accept it as error and allow the message to be passed through all of the levels.

 

When this happens, we see an increase in strength.  With this increase in strength there may be an increase in hypertrophy.  Other times we see an increase in strength with no increase in hypertrophy.

 

The fact that hypertrophy alone, without specific training, does not yield increased strength outcomes for the sport should speak volumes.  I can’t just leg press my way to a bigger squat.  This would support the idea that hypertrophy is a lower level attribute, dependent on the higher levels.

 

If I want hypertrophic increases that are beneficial to the sport, I need to focus on the higher levels. The lower levels do not pass information upstream to the higher levels.  There is no direct evidence in the literature to support this idea.

 

However, there is a lot of information on this Bayesian inference and allostatic and homeostatic regulation.  These are the arguments used in classical periodization models that are based off of the Selye 1930s rat studies.  The stress requires us to raise set points through the idea of the General Adaptation Syndrome.  These Bayesian models seem like a much more appropriate explanation in light of the last 90 years of research.

Westside May Have Been Right, but for the Wrong Reasons

 

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

The documentary “Westside vs the World” was released last week.  I thought this was a very well-done documentary and I would highly recommend it. The culture of Westside is absolutely fascinating.

 

The last few weeks I have gone back and listened to some of the Westside podcasts and read a bunch of the articles.  I like going back and revisiting old information once I have learned more myself.

 

Sometimes this change in perspective helps me understand better why the methods may or may not have worked.  I was doing this so that my coach and I could be more on the same page as well.

 

I like to know his thinking for exercises in my program.  I think in a few cases I had a different idea on why an exercise was in the program. This alters the way I go into it and whether I agree or not with it, also increases my buy in.

 

I have safety squat bar tempo squats and front squats in this block.  These are two exercises I do not use unless an injury requires it. Knowing my coach’s thinking helps with me doing these exercises.

 

I will always work hard no matter what and this is more important than the exercise, but it still helps.  Ironically, the SSB gave me good feedback on the squat.  I realized I was just leaning back hard with my torso out of the hole. I could tell because the loss of stability with the exercise.

 

I focused on flexing my quads out of the hole and this really helped that issue.  It helped it so much that I was able to take an extra set 20lbs more than my top set and it was still pretty easy.  My coach told me this exercise was good for me to build my upper back.

 

I was really focusing on that part of the lift.  Focusing on that and then adjusting with driving through my legs, might have some nice carryover into my competition lift.  We shall see in a couple weeks.  In hindsight, I wasn’t using my upper back in the squat, but my lower back.  This is the breakdown seen in my deadlift as well. I found this interesting.

 

I always had a sour taste of Westside in my mouth.  I watched it get bastardized for years where I worked.  Basically a group of Westside, multiply, wannabes screaming and yelling and lifting weights that Dave reps out raw.

 

I saw high box squats, floor press with all chains and barely any bar weight, swiss bar bands and chains bench press, bendy bar exercises, and many others.  This was not Westside, but nothing more than a bastardized version using random variations.

 

Louie Simmons is brilliant. He seems to be a hair off his rocker, but he is pretty smart.  He was not picking exercises randomly.  He was picking them based off of what he saw to strengthen weaknesses.  This is exactly what I do.  The only difference is he has been doing this longer than I have been alive.

 

Simmons would identify weak areas in the lift, but he would use the reasoning that a certain muscle or muscle group was weak.  He may have picked the right exercise for the lifter, but it was for the wrong reasons.

 

I do not believe these exercises were strengthening weak muscles, but instead weakening a poor skill. Louie was putting these variations that the lifter struggled with in the program for 3 weeks.  This is not enough time to strengthen a muscle, but definitely enough practice to improve a skill.

 

This would also explain why when other lifters and coaches use these methods, they do not get the same results they would get if they trained at Westside.  If it was as simple as identifying weak muscles and selecting an exercise, anyone could do it.

 

Louie’s intuition is Westside.  The other coaches and lifters do not have that.  They have methods to follow that are incorrect in their explanation.  Once one of these exercises does not work, they will most likely bring in another to attack that same weak muscle group.

 

This can become a very frustrating and futile endeavor.  This can lead to a lack of success in running the program and the lifter moving on to something else.  This was not because Westside was inefficient, but the coach or lifter’s understanding of the philosophy is poor.

 

A coach needs to use a framework that is open ended and understands the human is an open, complex, nonlinear, organism.  We are much more than a bag of muscles.  Perhaps those “weak” muscles get strengthened from the exercises, but this is a byproduct of the training.

 

Some other aspects of Westside that fits into the dynamic systems theory framework are, they get breakfast each day together to discuss training.  Each lifter is responsible for identifying weaknesses and choosing accessories.

 

The lifters are included in the training process and forced to develop self-efficacy.  The accessories make up about 80% of their volume and they are the ones choosing the exercises.  I thought this was pretty cool.

 

The environment at Westside was competitive and intense.  The lifters pushed each other.  You either fell in line or you did not last.  This social group dynamic is an environmental constraint.

 

They worked through pain. They weren’t scared of pain.  They understood that sometimes shit would hurt. Don’t get me wrong, I think they went too far with this at times.  Perhaps a few moderate weight sets would have been more appropriate at times than competing with world record holders, but I feel a lot of the current day lifters could use more of this attitude.

 

Drugs and gear aside, these guys got strong as shit because of Louie’s innovation with variability and his identifying weaknesses (even though he believes it is certain muscle groups and I do not.  We could still come up with the same exercises for different reasons.  The framework is important for future decisions so that you do not get stuck banging your head against a wall looking for answers), the environment, and the lifter buy-in and respect for Louie as a coach.

 

This sounds a lot like what John Kiely talks about in his editorials.  All the way from the importance of variability, self-efficacy, and lifter buy-in.  They also, trained hard when they felt like shit at times.  Kiely mentions this as well.

 

He said something along the lines of, if you have an Olympic event on a day you feel like shit what are you going to do?  Come back tomorrow?  You are going to suck it up and go hard.  Training can be a place to practice this.

 

I do think they could have been smarter at Westside with those decisions.  Getting injured in training for making a bad decision on a day is what I would consider low training skill.  This responsibility falls on the relationship between coach and lifter and the communication that they have.

 

All in all, I agree a lot more with Louie Simmons and Westside than I used to.  A major part is my newly acquired perspective on training as a skill.  I think another part was putting aside what I saw being mimicked as Westside and went right to the source.

Building Resiliency: It is Sometimes Sucking it Up

Written by Kevin Cann

 

Every coach and personal trainer out there wants to tell every lifter that their methods can increase performance while decreasing injury risk.  They may believe this, but I am going to tell you that it is absolute bullshit.

 

I know, because I used to say and believe those things.  This was when I was explaining everything going wrong with a mechanical explanation. Your hip hurts?  Let us do this series of tests you have never attempted and see what we can find.

 

You struggle standing on one leg, so it must be a lack of hip stability.  Grab an Airex pad and we will exercise in a kneeling position until you feel better.  The combination of any movement and time would take care of the issue and I would assume I was a genius.

 

Problem with this is that I was not building resiliency.  Instead I was basically deloading for large periods of time. This is not increasing performance or decreasing injury risk.  I see this far too often in my experiences in this field.

 

I was like this too, but we are confident we have all the answers and we need someone to tell. Unfortunately the person we tell ends up being someone paying money for our ignorance.  This makes it hard to move a field forward and have people take us seriously.

 

Increasing performance and resiliency both require the exact same thing.  They are not two separate pieces, but instead one in the same.  We achieve both by navigating hard training appropriately with the right frame of mind.

 

Resiliency is as much, if not more, of a mental aspect as it is physical preparation.  You build resiliency through education and high exposure to hard training.  Changing expectations and beliefs about pain is a part of this educational process.

 

The relationship between the coach and athlete is huge here.  Through conversation, the coach and athlete can make the best decisions for training on that given day for that athlete.  This may mean pushing through some pain as this builds resiliency.

 

We don’t just train hard no matter what.  We talk, make a decision, and if the athlete is psychologically and physically capable of hitting it hard that day, we hit it hard.  We plan to train hard every single day we enter the gym.

 

Our training hard is a matter of intensity.  We plan to hit 1 to 2 hard sets at an RPE 8.5 or higher.  I would rather it be higher here than lower.  We mostly work in the 9.5 range in training.

 

We do not plan light days. We allow those to self-organize.  Performance tends to take care of that for us. Warming up, things feel like shit, we hit what we can that day and just move on.  You will be surprised with what people are capable of when they let go of these preconceived beliefs that aren’t backed up by observation or research.

 

I will actually program exercises that I know the lifters do not like and may not believe that they actually work.  This is to teach them how to get their head’s right going into training.  As I put on Alyssa’s program, it is an emotional challenge.

 

Coaches will argue “Lifter’s beliefs matter!”  No one understands that more than me.  I give the lifters far more freedom than any other coach that I know.  This does not mean that those beliefs dictate training.

 

This is learning to train the mind before we get started.  We will often come into the gym feeling like shit because life didn’t go our way today.  We can’t control many of those aspects, but when it is time to train, it is time to pull up the knee sleeves, tighten the belt, and forget about that bullshit.

 

There is only one thing that matters at this given time and it is executing the lifts in front of us. A poor attitude or focus on the negative aspects of life while we train, can decrease the adaptations training can bring and also increase our risk for injury.

 

If you want to increase performance and decrease injury risk, you got to learn how to deal with your shit.  You need to learn that your body is capable of far more than we think.  1 to 2 hard sets each training day is not something that the body can’t handle as long as the loads are gradually increased over time.

 

Get rid of your foam roller, your balloon, and your special warmups.  Spend a few minutes getting your head right to attack training to get the most out of it.  This may mean a quick conversation with your coach before you get started.

 

As you put your gear on, you have an opportunity here to direct that focus.  Warming up with the empty bar allows us to increase that focus through feeling the bar in our hands and our back and start getting into the positions we need to move the most weight on this given day.

 

Those performing special exercises, foam rolling, “unlocking their potential”, or any of the other bullshit out there are literally holding themselves back.  These can decrease performance and increase injury risk by making the lifter think they need “fixing” or “activating” before they train.

 

The resiliency goes to some external piece, this includes things like RPR, when the person is doing it to themselves.  The body is ready to gradually increase loads upon entering the gym.  We just need to get the mind ready to do the same.