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Self-Organization vs Hierarchical Movement System

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I read an interesting article that explained how the culture of the time actually influences scientific research.  In the 80s and 90s we were in the technological era.  Computers were becoming popular in households, cell phones, mp3s, and more.

 

During this time movement science was focused on attempting to understand the movement capacities of a body by comparing it to a computer.  This meant that movement was controlled by a central mechanism in the brain.

 

Information filtered down from this control center to the rest of the body producing movement.  The development of skills here requires a large emphasis placed on cognitive processes to coordinate highly skilled movements.

 

This ignores the athlete’s previous experiences as well as the feedback processes of movement systems. Another issue with this hierarchical movement system is it assumes that there is a storage limit for movements. This is much like a computer running out of memory.

 

A problem also arises when we compare movements between novice and expert people.  These traditional theories believe the person internalizes the movement before completing it.  The problem with this is that some higher skilled movements happen too fast for this process to take place.

 

Skilled performers have learned to process subtle information very quickly.  Think of a batter in Major League Baseball.  They are picking up lots of subtle movements from the pitcher to predict where the ball is going and to coordinate a swing to put the bat on the ball.  You or I would not be able to accomplish this task.

 

These traditional theories also view error in movement as a negative thing.  This error can be eliminated through practice.  The problem with this is with the environment.  Let us look at that same hitter in baseball.

 

Each game is played under different environmental constraints, the sun, the wind, the temperature, the field playing surface, and the crowd are just some of the examples that the batter may need to adjust their approach with.  Athletes need a wide array of movement options to overcome these constraints.

 

Lots of research shows that movement variability actually increases skill level in many life and athletic tasks.  How much variability we need depends on the complexity of the task.  Hitting a baseball is much more difficult than squatting.

 

This means that a powerlifter does not need as much variability as a baseball player. However, there is still variability needed.  From watching the most successful lifters throughout the history of the sport we can come up with what we believe is optimal technique for the best long-term performance.

 

The lifter’s memories, perceptions, intentions, and preplanned strategies all play into developing this technique.  Most lifters start lifting later in life than we typically would with other sports.  At this point they most likely have well defined predictive strategies.

 

When we are less skilled at a sport our body needs to solve the degrees of freedom problem.  Our body has many degrees of freedom that allow for a multitude of movement options.  When we are less skilled in a movement the body will lock up some of these degrees of freedom to accomplish the task.  This is its way of gaining some control over a task in which predictive strategies are difficult due to limited experience.  As we gain more experience the body will begin to unlock these degrees of freedom.

 

It is our job as coaches to guide them through achieving optimal performance.  Also, I believe getting them into these positions helps to increase the lifter’s load tolerance.  If we disburse the volume amongst more joints the lifter should tolerate higher volumes. We can tolerate higher sumo deadlift volumes than we could conventional stiff legged deadlifts.  So not only are these positions required to move the most weight, but I believe they also play a role in the longevity of the lifter.

 

We need to help them solve this degrees of freedom problem.  I think too often as coaches we make this process about ourselves instead of the lifter.  We tell them what we want them to do and then we inundate them with feedback.  This may not be the best way to have them learn the lift.

 

We definitely need to communicate with them what we want them to do.  From there, we need to put them in positions to help them figure it out. This requires less talking and more watching by the coach.

 

Coaching cues have a place, but I feel they are overused in these situations.  I like a cue to remind a lifter what I want.  “Chest up” is used to get the upper back tight on the squat. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.  What works better is just having the lifter change their gaze to something higher up than what they were looking at before.

 

This is changing a constraint that tends to have a better effect on the performance outcome.  Attempting to leave the head “neutral” and keep telling them different cues is far less effective to learning.  We need movement to get into the unconscious levels. Becoming hyper focused on this one thing can bring too much conscious awareness to the lift, delaying learning. There is also solid research showing that focusing on an external thing is far more effective than internally focusing.

 

We definitely want to make sure the lifters are in a safe position and adhering to the rules of the sport.  I will argue all day long that neutral spine doesn’t exist and the head up position is perfectly safe, and better for performance, for a lifter not in pain.

 

Usually if someone is losing the upper back in the squat, we will use a variation such as pausing on the halfway up.  This variation will punish that technique breakdown.  They will not be able to pause there if they are in a poor mechanical position.  This is how we can help them self-organize to the technique that we deem to be optimal.

 

I also like to allow lifters to experience different foot positions, bar positions, and angles within each lift.  This helps them figure out what positions are most comfortable for them and where they can lift the most weight.  It also allows the coach to identify weaknesses to attack.

 

These strengths and weaknesses can change over time too.  Many times a lifter may prefer pulling sumo but sees a big jump in their conventional deadlift.  They may choose to compete in this stance at an upcoming meet, but for a future competition they find they are stronger again in the sumo position.

 

Every day the person in front of us is actually a different person.  All those factors that make that person who they are play into their performance.  Their perceptions, beliefs, moods, the environment, are all different each day they train.

 

This means that the coach needs to take these things into considerations and make any necessary changes to training day to day.  Embrace the unpredictability and uncertainty of the sport.  The human body is much like a weather system.

 

Weather systems are very unpredictable even a few days out.  Also, variables effect the system differently at different times.  Sometimes these variables clash and make intense thunderstorms.  Other times these variables clash, and the storm is less intense, or we don’t even get anything at all.

 

This is the difference between forecasting and predicting.  Weathermen are very poor at predicting weather but viewed as one of the most successful.  As coaches we need to understand this and use our eyes and our gut to make the right decisions for each lifter at the right times.

 

These decisions need to take appropriate load management strategies in mind.  We need the volume and mechanical stress to get stronger. How we arrange that volume can change based off of the information the coach has and his or her experience.

 

We need to guide them to self-organize into the positions in which we deem to be optimal.  This means watching and adjusting.  Oftentimes I will take a common variation and tweak it a bit to better suit that lifter’s learning of the task.

 

For example, box squats are great to teach control, but sometimes a lifter struggles to totally get it. Instead of me giving too much feedback, I will make them touch the box and pause a couple inches off of it.  We will then look at videos and discuss the difference.

 

The coach needs to be ok with errors in training as well.  Don’t just lower the weight until it looks better.  This changes the movement as well.  Heavier weights are different than lighter ones.  Not only due to increased gravity, but the psychological piece.

 

When a lifter sees heavier weights, they can become scared.  This changes the movement pattern oftentimes to be more hesitant.  Yu might see a lifter slow down on the eccentric portion of the squat.  Lifting a ton of light weights will not fix this.

 

Understanding all of these concepts is the art of coaching.  I have a lot to learn here as my understanding of these concepts is in its infancy.

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ACWR and Progressive Overload

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

We all know that progressive overload is important to getting stronger.  We know we have to do more than we did before in order to get stronger. However, this is not an exact science and there are still many questions that coaches can have when trying to write programs.

 

Overload doesn’t just mean volumes need to increase.  We can overload a few different things.  We can overload intensity for one.  I keep track of all reps performed from 50% and higher.  I can have someone perform the exact same number of lifts as before, but we get a few more repetitions at 80% of 1RM or higher.  This can raise volumes a little bit, but it is not much usually.  Oftentimes when I do this, I use fewer total lifts, because of recovery, and volumes end up being a little bit less.

 

We can also overload efficiency.  This is what I tend to do in the offseason, far away from a competition.  This is also how I would treat someone with very poor technique.  We can use variations to help correct technique issues.

 

These variations can increase in difficulty.  For example, tempo squats at 70% for sets of 4 repetitions are much harder than comp squats at the same weight and reps.  This time under tension is progressive overload to the comp squat. From there we can pause on the halfway up for 2-4 seconds.  Obviously 4 seconds is more difficult than 2 at the same weights.  I find this variation to be harder than tempo squats for most.

 

From the pause on the halfway u squats we can do 1.5 squats.  This is where the lifter hits depth and goes halfway up, back down to depth, and then all of the way up.  These are very difficult and requires the lifter to spend a lot of time in the most difficult position of the lift.

 

Each block can use one variation and then the next block can use the exact same weights with another variation.  This helps improve technical proficiency in the lifts as long as the coach is selecting the appropriate variation for the appropriate lifter.  Blocks like this oftentimes end with PRs.

 

This does not mean that volume isn’t important.  We need to be sure the lifter is hitting appropriate baseline volumes for them.  There are many ways to organize a training block. I tend to prefer to organize it by rotating high, medium, and low stress days and weeks.  I learned this from Sheiko and have had good success with progress and health of my lifters.

 

I used to decide a number of lifts and average intensity for each lifter based upon the recommendations of Sheiko.  Now I do things a little bit differently.  I use the ACWR to organize these days and weeks.

 

Quick rundown on the ACWR. It is a rolling 4-week average of total tonnage in the big 3 lifts.  This is the chronic workload.  The acute workload is the current week of training.  Basically, the chronic workload is the athlete’s preparedness and the acute workload is the current fatigue in which the athlete is being asked to accumulate.

 

Acute workload divided by chronic workload equals the ACWR.  A ratio of 1.0 is baseline.  We never want to stray too far away from baseline either up or down for progress and health.  Everyone has a baseline that I try to maintain.

 

This baseline is not an exact science and it changes from person to person and even within an individual it can change over time.  This is extremely hard to maintain and why having the eye of an experienced coach is important.

 

Adjustments need to be made on a day to day basis.  We never want training to be too easy or too hard, for the most part.  I no longer let these numbers dictate the load on the bar. Instead I watch the lifter and decide from there.

 

Watching the lifter is more than just watching how the previous set looks.  It is getting to know them and understanding their lives a little bit as well as their mindset when training.  Getting stronger includes more than just building physical strength. The psychological piece is just as important.

 

Understanding all of these factors can help the coach put the right weight on the bar for each of their lifters.  Lifters also progress over time.  You don’t want to miss these moments and slow down their progress.  Making sure we get the right weight on the bar is important here.

 

If the lifter has gotten used to training volumes and the training is getting easier, we can overload intensity.  In these periods we will just push the weights but keep the number of reps the exact same.

 

If the lifter continuously hits numbers that are much higher than what is in their program, I will look at it and give them an inflated max.  They will then run the program with the same number of lifts and average intensities as before.

 

As the meet draws near we will drop variations and primarily focus on competition lifts.  This is where we will push volumes and number of lifts. A simple way to do this is by adding sets or reps to the same intensities that were previously used.

 

When structuring weeks of training I used to follow the guidelines laid out by Sheiko.  A medium volume week is 20-30% of the total lifts completed.  A small week is less than 20%, large week 30-40%, and extra-large week is greater than 40% of the lifts completed.

 

Instead of doing this now I use the ACWR.  I will have one week that is well above 1.0.  This sometimes will exceed the 1.3 that is mentioned as an upper range.  If it exceeds 1.3, I consider it an extra-large week.  1.0 is medium, less than 1.0 is small, and 1.1-1.3 is large.

 

If we are far out from a meet, I will structure the 4 weeks in a way that averages out to 1.0.  If I want to raise chronic workloads there may be 3 weeks over 1.0 and 1 week at .8-.9 for recovery.  This just depends on the lifter and the lifter’s schedule.

 

This is not just about mechanical stress.  This is why getting to know your lifters is important.  If they have a lot going on in their lives that lead to higher than normal stress levels, their tolerance for training stress will be less.

 

However, if things are going well, their tolerance for stress can be higher.  There is not much we can control here.  During the good times lets push it and during the stressful times lets maintain and work on some other aspects of training.  Take what is there when it is there, within reason.

Task Constraints in Powerlifting: Where Variation Meets Specificity

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

In the 1960s, a Russian scientist named Bernstein warned against splitting up the neurophysiology and biomechanical aspects of movement.  He explained that each does not exist without the other.

 

Fast forward to modern day and almost all of our research is either or.  The majority of the research that I see is some EMG analysis of lifts looking at what muscles are involved at given times throughout the range of motion.

 

Not that this research isn’t useful, it is, but it is a very small piece of a much larger picture.  I saw a study performed on 12 powerlifters using the Safety Squat Bar.  The EMG analysis showed it had greater activation of the upper back muscles, but lower activation of some of the leg muscles as well as the abs.

 

I do not like this bar in training at all.  The fact that the EMG showed this, as well as a 11% decrease in loads used (probably why the muscle activation was less than a straight bar), I thought it defended my stance.  It does somewhat, but not the whole story.

 

As a coach sometimes you see things that you just know aren’t right.  It might even just be a gut feeling.  Trying to understand these gut feelings is how we learn.  I knew that the safety squat bar was not giving me the desired effects like other variations.

 

I see a study like the one presented, and it immediately makes sense.  However, when I jump to that conclusion, I fall into the same trap that Bernstein warned of.  We are not just a bag of muscles.  We are far more complex than that.

 

The more I learn about motor control, the more I learn that Bernstein was right.  Lifting with a Safety Squat Bar is a completely different skill, and for this reason I do not like it in my programming.

 

I would have liked to have known how familiar the lifters in that study were with the SSB.  Perhaps the decrease in weight used was just due to their lack of familiarity with it.  This is not a reason I feel this bar should be used, but the exact opposite. Perhaps with better skill, the muscle activation would have been different.  In my experiences most people squat less with the SSB, but who knows.

 

If these are experienced powerlifters shouldn’t they be able to do a similar movement as their sport asks them too?  If these lifters aren’t familiar with it and it requires them to use less weight to figure out, then how much carryover would there be the other way?

 

Another recent study had showed that 1RMs were very similar for the same lifter regardless of foot stance width.  This tells me that close stance and wide stance squats each builds the competition squat because the absolute loads are similar.  The movement is similar enough to have carryover.

 

Now, some people claim that the SSB had benefits for them and I have seen lifters that struggled with changing their foot position in the squat.  However, these are most definitely outliers in my experiences.

 

If anything this is an example of the principle of individual differences.  Everyone learns a little bit differently and we are learning a skill at the end of the day.  I feel that the skill of the SSB does not carry over to the skill of the competition squat as much as other options.

 

It is a different movement. The weight feels differently on your back, it sits in a very different spot, and your arms are held by your sides. I also feel the same way about front squats.  The weight sits differently, and the movement feels very different.

 

With high bar squats and moving the feet around we are using the same equipment that we compete with. We are just tweaking the movement in a very slight way to achieve a desired effect from the lifter.

 

Playing soccer if I had used a smaller or larger ball in training it would have altered my mechanics to adjust to the difference.  This would not have necessarily been a good thing to do in practice.  The specialty bars are similar to this in my opinion.

 

A high bar squat keeps everything the same as the competition squat.  The only difference is the bar is a couple of inches higher on their back. This increases the thoracic extension demands and forces the lifter to stay a bit more upright.  You also will not get away with as much pitching forward out of the hole.  However, at the end of the day it feels very similar to the competition movement.

 

Using a straight bar here has much more carryover in my opinion than using the SSB.  This is why the eye of the coach is important.  The coach needs to be able to watch the lifter and devise a plan in the gym to put them in positions so that they learn how to squat for optimal performance.

 

The use of variations with the intent of teaching the athlete a skill is known as task constraints. We are more often than not putting the lifter in a position that punishes bad technique.  In powerlifting we are limited to what constraints we can change.  This has opened the door for specialty bars and other devices to be sold.

 

We need to make sure the task constraints that we put in training have the desired effect and carryover that we are looking for.  All too often when someone has a technical issue in the lift there is a standard answer that is found on the internet.

 

This may work for you and it may not.  I have been fucking around with variations to improve technique ever since I started training powerlifters.  I am only now beginning to develop a strong grasp of how to alter the tasks in the gym for the desired effects.

 

Some things that we can alter are the equipment.  I think there may be some benefits to training without a belt and sleeves.  I think many people have this unsubstantiated belief that their equipment helps them lift more weight.  The belt helps, but probably not as much as you think. The knee sleeves don’t give you anything, no matter how tight they get.

 

Switching to flats may put a higher emphasis on the quads in the literature.  Maybe this has some carryover, but why not just high bar squat in your competition shoes?  I always wore my equipment in practice for other sports.

 

The other way we can alter equipment is with specialty bars.  Like I stated before I don’t believe using these leads to transferable skills to the competition lift.  The skill to utilize them is very different.

 

Load matters.  What I have realized over time is that in order for carryover to be seen in the competition lift the weight lifted matters. Just practicing good technique with light weights does not just transition to having the same technique under heavier weights.

 

We need to keep this in mind when we are utilizing variations.  This is why I like altering foot position.  Most people can lift somewhere in the same ballpark as they can with a comp stance.  Most people can also handle weights around 80% for reps with high bar squats and the combo of high bar squats and changing foot position.

 

If the loads lifted are too light for carryover, we need to make adjustments to the other days, or decide if it is even worth it to keep in the program.  The skill level of the lifter and the training age is a big part of this. A beginner I do not mind lifting light weights with opposite stance deadlifts for a while, but someone more elite this may yield a loss in strength that is not worth it.

 

During this time period we can alter angles of the squat to more mimic the competition deadlift and we can push squat intensity a bit since similar muscles are utilized.  You see, biomechanics matters, but it is not the only thing.

 

We need to balance the biomechanics with the neurophysiological (which includes psychological) into a coherent path where the outcome is the best total possible. This also means adapting the program on a day to day basis.

 

The weight used also changes the environment.  This is why we see breakdowns in technique at heavier weights.  This is also why the task constraints we put in training need to be performed under heavier loads.

 

This does not mean that the lifter needs to be handle heavier loads right away with these variations. We need to practice them a bit and prepare for the heavier weights.  Standard linear periodization can work very well here.

 

We also need adequate amounts of volume.  The general strength principles still apply to all of this.  We need a certain baseline level of volume to get stronger.  At the appropriate times we need to stress this baseline a bit.

 

I tend to do this more on a daily basis than a weekly one.  There will be high stress days, medium, and low stress days.  I tend to stress intensity with the same number of lifts in the off season and as a meet draws near we increase total volume and the amount of competition lifts performed increases.  You can’t just drive volumes year-round.

 

The offseason is a good time to add variation and allow the athlete to self-organize technique.  It is also a good time to destabilize previous movement patterns that the coach may deem inefficient.

 

During this time we can alter the constraints of training to overload efficiency and increase learning. Some variations are harder than others. Also, some variations create a response, but need to be adjusted to each individual lifter to cater to their individual learning experience.

 

This might mean having a pause on the halfway up in a high bar wide stance squat.  We could drive high bar wide stance squats through a block to try to improve pitching and knees caving in.  It may improve some, but the coach may see room for more improvement.

 

We don’t just ditch the exercise, but we adjust it and watch what happens.  I used to interject more than I do now.  I give feedback and cues to remind the lifter what to focus on.  I also adjust the weight on the bar.  I do not want training to be too light or too heavy.

 

I also need to take into consideration lifter confidence when picking weights.  Often, I will see a lifter registering high RPEs for sets that look very easy.  This tells me that we need to alter the environment to work on confidence.  This doesn’t come from turning on the Rocky soundtrack.

 

When I see this, I will put the lifter in uncomfortable situations with heavier weights and we will build confidence this way.  This is delicate as missed repetitions can further decrease the lifter’s confidence. Usually their belief in me as their coach and having side spots and the support of the team can help alter these perceptions and increase confidence.

 

In these situations it is not weak muscles leading to technical breakdowns in the lift, but the lack of confidence.  You cannot separate the neurophysiological and the biomechanical as they exist together. One thing all elite athletes have in common is their confidence and belief in themselves.

 

The job of the coach is to guide this process taking all of these aspects into consideration.  From there we need to put the lifters in the correct environment to elicit the wanted changes in technique.

 

It is also the job of the coach to watch and make the necessary adjustments on a day to day basis. This is not a plug and play scenario where you see something wrong occur and there is a one size fits all approach to fixing it.

 

It also takes time. Let the lifter play around a bit and see how it improves over the span of a few weeks.  From here reassess and start the process over.

 

 

Where I May Disagree with Sheiko on Technique

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I have written quite a bit about the importance of technique recently and in the past.  My knowledge of skill acquisition has grown over the last few years and as I learn more, I realize I may have been incorrect in my understandings and how I was implementing it.

 

I have talked a lot about building a stable motor pattern.  My understanding in my time with Sheiko was that we want every repetition to look the same.  If we are performing 5 sets of 3 repetitions at 80% of 1RM they should all look similar.

 

If each repetition looked different then we would be training 15 different movement patterns, and this would lead to an unstable movement pattern that would breakdown easily under heavier loads.

 

I took this as a way to determine training loads and volumes.  However, I don’t believe this was the right way to be doing things. After reading Sheiko’s book, I also believe that I misunderstood some of these aspects and how he interprets them.

 

I was interpreting the movement variability in lifts as errors.  In my eyes this was a negative thing.  This is where I was making my biggest mistake and why I think some progress for lifters stalled.

 

It should not have been viewed as an error.  This was in fact the lifter learning.  Research has shown that before skill acquisition is obtained there is a high variability of movement.  Our brain is constantly perceiving and predicting sensory outcomes to preplan motor strategies.

 

As we lift the brain is determining which strategies work best based off of past experiences and these perceptions and beliefs.  This happens at both the conscious and unconscious levels.  In fact, in the beginning more of the movement is being performed at the conscious level.

 

When the conscious control is taking over, different parts of the central nervous system are driving the ship.  This leads to greater movement error.  What we need to do is we need to create changes in the subconscious movement systems. The subconscious is what allows us to self-organize.

 

It is our job as coaches to guide them from the conscious to the subconscious to allow them to self-organize into the patterns that we feel are optimal for them.  All obtained movement patterns are temporary.  This is why it is a lifelong journey of achieving perfect technique.

 

We move from stable movement pattern to stable movement pattern.  If someone has been lifting for a while and they pitch forward in the squat, this I currently their stable movement pattern.

 

In this case we need to destabilize the movement patterns from the past before we can acquire a new one. This is why I will remove competition lifts from someone’s program for a period of time.  The strongest influence upon someone’s movement is past experiences. The longer someone goes without this pattern the more destabilized it becomes.

 

We then need to create an environment that forces the lifter to self-organize in better positions.  We do not always need to take the competition lifts out of the program to achieve this.  This is where we can identify where breakdowns are happening and use lighter weights to build tonnage.  However, far out from a meet, I tend to find it is easier if we remove it for a 4-8 week period of time.

 

This is what I believe Sheiko actually was doing with my programs.  The variations being used were there to create those subconscious changes in system dynamics, comp lifts were performed at loads with good techniques, and the number of lifts and average intensities were adjusted in ways to make sure the lifter would still get stronger because strength principles still apply.

 

This was hard to see at the time with a very minimal understanding of motor control theories. I also was probably underloading my lifters based off of the errors that I saw in training.  I identified this once I added in monitoring tools such as the ACWR and LSRPEs.

 

I make sure we hit the appropriate numbers for loads and average relative intensities as well as LSRPEs at least a 7.  I don’t structure the lock in a way where I look for perfect technique on every repetition anymore.

 

I analyze the lifter’s videos and training and make a plan based off of that.  I give the lifter feedback for what I am looking for on the lifts and sit back and watch.  I will give them some feedback after sets and I want to see what they figure out as the block goes along.

 

At the end of the block I see where we are at.  Oftentimes the variation will help a little bit, but there is still unwanted breakdown. From here I decide if I want to keep running it as is or tweak the variation in a way that may be more appropriate for that individual to learn.

 

We all learn differently and at different rates.  It is naïve to think that each variation will work the same for everyone.  It absolutely will not.   The coach needs to understand that learning is not linear.  There are many aspects that come together to form a learned behavior.

 

For example, I like to use box squats to teach control in the squat.  This helps many lifters maintain position out of the hole. However, for some we may still see some loss of control such as pitching or knees caving in.  I will have them then touch the box and pause 2 inches above it. This forces them to change it up a bit. It allows them to control more of the positions of the lift.

 

There will also be progressions and regressions in this learned behavior over time as well.  The coach needs to look at the totality of the training block and determine how best to alter the training environment to elicit the outcomes in which they are looking for.

 

The coach needs to identify whether the movement errors in training are positive towards the learning experience or not working.  I explain this to my lifters as conscious effort.  I want to see them attempt to do what I am asking.  I want to see what that conscious effort brings about over a few weeks.  From there we adjust.

 

If the lifter is just losing control in the lift, then we need to change up some things.  We either need to lower the weight or change the exercise. When we lower the weight, we need to be sure our efforts and loads are still appropriate for that lifter to get stronger.

 

If our opposite stance deadlift is 15% weaker than the competition stance, we need to be sure we are getting overloaded weights somewhere else.  If someone pulls conventional and their sumo deadlift is weaker by a lot there may be some really heavy snatch grip deadlifts, or other variation to really hit the back.  The squat volume can help here too.

 

I actually want to see some breakdowns in the lifts in training.  This allows me to identify areas of the lifts that need to be addressed. I am much more ok with errors occurring in training now than I used to be.  I used to view them as a negative, but in fact they may be a positive sign of the lifter learning.

Self-Organizing Technique Doesn’t Mean Lifting Technique Doesn’t Matter

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

A little over 3 years ago I started powerlifting.  I was fortunate enough to have one of the greatest coaches of all-time as my coach. From day 1 with Boris Sheiko technique was drilled into me as being the most important aspect of training.

 

I did not understand what this entailed at the time.  I was familiar with some of his go to exercises to fix certain technical breakdowns within certain positions of each lift.  On top of that I followed the recommended volumes and average intensities that he laid out.

 

I started coaching an intern at the place I worked and messed around with this stuff.  I was also gaining experience lifting under Sheiko and asking questions.  This was successful with this lifter, very.  After that first year, I had a few more lifters and saw equally as good success.

 

As I gained more lifters, and some of the others were with me for longer, I noticed some problems. Technique may look good under submaximal weights, but the breakdowns would occur under the heavier ones. Lifters got really nervous when 90% or more were put on the bar.

 

There were times that my belief in this system waivered quite a bit.  The problem with the system wasn’t with the system itself, it was with me. My lifters in the beginning saw good success because I followed some general rules of powerlifting and motor control.

 

However, in order to get continued steady progress from my lifters my understanding of these principles and how to apply them needs to get better.  I understood this and I know that for a couple of them making their way up the rankings, they need a coach that is capable of coaching someone at that level.  This is what drives me to continue to learn more and more.

 

I spent a lot of time analyzing the lifts and figuring out which muscles were most important at various angles.  I tried to use variations that would target those muscle groups more heavily.  Then something happened a couple of months ago.

 

I was beginning to notice that high bar wide stance squats were fixing a lot of pitching issues in the squat.  This made very little sense to me.  Why was this working better than an exercise such as pin squats?  Pitching in the squat is weak quads isn’t it?  Wide stance squats puts equal or less emphasis on the quads and more on the glutes.

 

This does not make sense. Knee extension demands are greatest at depth and hip extension demands are higher later in the squat.  Then a light bulb clicked.  I had been looking at the wrong things the entire time.

 

We are not just biomechanical machines, or a bag of muscles.  We are a complex system that combines many other complex systems to display strength and skill.  Strength is actually a skill.  This led me down a rabbit hole of researching some theories on motor control.

 

I stumbled upon Dynamic Systems Theory and Nonlinear Pedagogy.  I began reading some studies on this stuff and it was just making so much sense.  I then began reading the Sheiko book.  In this book he mentions this motor control theory.

 

This explained why high bar wide stance squats was fixing the pitching problems in the squat.  It also explained why technique was breaking down at greater than 90% of 1RM for my lifters.  The high bar wide stance squats force the lifter to stay upright.

 

If the lifter pitches even a little bit, they will have to quickly get the hips back under the bar or they will fall over.  Confidence affects technique.  If a lifter is scared of weights, they will see breakdowns at those heavier weights.

 

Sheiko coaches the likes of Alexi Nikulin in Russia.  This 82.5kg lifter passed out on a second squat attempt of 764lbs (raw with knee sleeves).  He broke both wrists due to the bar falling off of his back.  He came out and smoked it on his 3rd.  This is a different mentality from the lifters I coach.

 

What the DST says is that the lifter is preplanning motor control strategies based off of past experiences, interactions with the environment, and perceptions and beliefs about the lift.  Once the lift starts the brain is constantly analyzing sensory feedback and makes the appropriate adjustments.

 

As a coach we need to take all of these aspects into consideration.  We also need to take general strength principles into consideration. We still need adequate volumes and average intensities to get stronger.

 

We need BOTH for maximal results.  You can get very good results from just touching upon a few pieces.  I saw this in the beginning.  However, for long term continued success I believe the coach needs a very high understanding of how to apply both.  This is what separates Sheiko from everyone else.

 

Coaches have been throwing around the term “self-organizing” to explain how everyone’s technique will be different.  This is true it will.  Every rep from the same person will also be different.  However, we know that certain positions are more optimal to push more weights.

 

The differences in technique comes from things such as stance width and toe flail.  The coach should be putting the lifter in the best position for them to obtain these more optimal positions.

 

Our job as coaches is to create an environment that guides the lifter towards that optimal technique while also applying general strength principles.  This takes extremely high-level coaching.  I have much to learn to get to this level.

 

Some things that I have learned recently.  For one, everyone learns differently.  I have go to exercises to fix technical issues in each of the lifts.  They tend to work at varying levels for each person. I watch each person lift and I adjust the variation in a way that fits that person better and allows them a greater learning experience.

 

Skill development is not linear.  I have been picking variations and using weekly linear progressions to push them throughout a block.  This is not appropriate.  This works, but it can be better.  Sheiko did not use weekly linear progressions with me and it only started making sense to me recently.

 

I am not being so rigid to following the program.  Instead I write the program as a blueprint to guide my decisions.  I have built in monitoring tools to help this decision-making process.  However, I will adapt daily to the lifter.

 

For example, yesterday Doug had triples at 80% which is 335lbs.  He took the first set and said the weight feels very heavy.  However, it was very fast.  We scratched the plan.  We put 30 more pounds on the bar and after a triple with it we did an AMRAP where he got 7 reps.

 

A situation like this gets his confidence back on the squats and teaches him to not let his feelings dictate training and to trust his strength.  If I don’t do this, who knows where that negative thought pattern on squats will stop.

 

Everything has a time and place.  It is learning where and when to use it.  This is the art of coaching and it only comes with an understanding of both general strength principles as well as the principles of motor control and blends it with the experience of a well know ledged coach.  This takes time, but we will get there.