A Case Against Specificity

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

When I first started coaching the sport of powerlifting, I thought specificity was everything.  We did a lot of variations, but the variations would be in the competition stance with competition bar and hand placement, competition grip on the bench, and competition style deadlift.

 

AI would argue that this is for maximum carryover to the main lifts due to the similar positions. I would argue that every repetition in training should look the exact same.  This is to ensure that we are training the same movement pattern consistently.  This I would argue leads to a stable movement pattern.

 

The issue with this is that it was not holding up well under the heavier weights.  We were making good progress, but I knew it could be better. I began looking more into skills acquisition and a constraints-led approach.

 

I was basically attempting to teach skill acquisition without really having a good understanding of the theories out there.  This clearly was limiting my abilities as a coach trying to work on technique (skills) of the lifts.

 

I had this theory that the lighter weights were not heavy enough to actually transfer over to the heavier lifts.  A constraints-led approach also has a different view on the variability of the movement pattern.  This theory does not view error as all bad, but instead the athlete learning.

 

This made some bells go off in my head.  I had started hitting some heavier sets in training with my lifters, but there were limits on these based off of load management.  I ended up taking off these limits as I found they really didn’t matter and the heavier we were lifting the better that we were getting.  This is a different topic though.

 

I was still holding back at this time too due to technique breaking down.  However, learning about the constraints-led approach made me think a little more about this.  I could lift heavy more often to give lifters confidence under heavier weights and even to fix technique.

 

Yes, heavier weights can fix technique.  In order for this to work, I just need to put the lifters in positions where that technical fault is punished and just let them figure it out.  By heavy I am talking RPE 8.5-9.5 in these various positions.

 

Oftentimes we build these positions up enough where lifters are taking 90+% of 1RM for reps.  A lot of the positions are just altered by foot placement and I do not think there is a big difference in 1RM between the same lifter squatting close, medium, or wide.

 

A pin squat with a pause off of the pins will not be as heavy in absolute loads, but the relative intensity will still be between an RPE 8.5 to 9.5.  I believe that the mind knows the weight on the bar, but the body only knows effort.

 

This doesn’t mean that we only need effort.  We can’t separate the body from the mind.  We need to train the mind.  I believe the mind needs to see these bigger weights to build confidence and there actually is a skill to lifting higher absolute loads.  The weight on the bar is actually a constraint.

 

The problem is you can’t train this skill with only the competition movements.  Every lifter will come to a coach with a stable pattern in all 3 lifts.  This stable pattern is based off of their perceptions and previous training experiences.

 

In order to develop a different skill under the weights (different pattern), you need to alter constraints to guide the lifter to self-organizing towards that pattern. This is how you destabilize the original pattern and stabilize a new and improved one.

 

This takes a high level of skill from the coach.  This is where coaching blends the science into an art.  Oftentimes I will completely remove the competition lift from a training block and only perform variations of the lifts.

 

This will ruffle some feathers I am sure on the internet, but I have had some really good success lately in doing this.  People will argue quite heavily about specificity of training and how powerlifting is one of the sports in which we can train with high specificity.

 

The belief that the competition lifts should be the primary focus relies on information from traditional theories of motor control.  These traditional theories put an emphasis on the development of movement skills from developing cognitive structures that influence memory recall.

 

A constraints-led approach does not put the same emphasis on memory recall.  Coordinated movement is instead viewed as an “emergent property” based off the variables given to the lifter in training.  There are many levels of learning that take place.  It does not just occur in the memory recall portion of the brain.

 

Competition actually is driven by the “ego” portion of the brain.  This is very different from practice.  In order to make it more “specific” there would need to be a way to tap into that ego driven piece.  Competition does well with that.   I think that this is something that Westside actually gets right.  They create competition in training.

 

I also think we can get this by pushing weights a little bit when the timing is right.  I think that competition with ones self brings about that competition specific ego driven behavior.  This is one of my theories why the higher intensity sets tend to lead to better results for my lifters than measurements such as total tonnage.

 

High repetition work is not competition specific either.  Sets of 6 or more repetitions are actually more metabolically challenging than heavy singles.  The mindset approaching a set of 6 is very different from the mindset of approaching a heavy single.

 

We can’t just max out our lifts every day in the gym though.  However, we can put our lifters in positions that punish their technique flaws and still get that same relative intensity.  If we choose the right positions, we do not need to necessarily worry about the errors we are seeing under the bar.

 

These errors are expected as we are exploiting weaknesses and are a result of the lifter attempting to learn a new behavior.  In the beginning the weights are usually controlled by the lifter’s inexperience with the exercise.

 

However, we tend to see some beginner gains with these exercises even on more advanced lifters. Very quickly they are able to begin to figure it out and start to load it up.  We keep loading it up until progress seems to stall and then we change it up.

 

Sometimes at this point the competition lift will come back in and we see a remarkable improvement. Sometimes we see a bit of an improvement, but it is not necessarily as good as it can be.  From here I will bring the variation back in but alter it in a way that further addresses that need.

 

For a lifter with the common pitching out of the hole, this may mean high bar wide stance squats to start. We run that for a bit and see how the competition lift looks.  In a lot of cases it will look better, but still need some work.  This is where I might use a high bar wide stance squat with a pause on the halfway up.

 

Many will think that this is not specific to the low bar comp stance squat.  I don’t care, I am looking for a transference of skill.  The rules of the squat are still the exact same as is the equipment.  We squat to depth and stand back up with a straight bar on our backs.

 

The only difference is bar placement by an inch or 2 and foot placement by a couple of inches.  This just changes the angles enough to give a different stimulus to the lifter to figure out.  It is still a squat.  In fact, a squat that may be targeting the hips a little more.  In this scenario the hips may actually be lagging behind the quads and back in terms of strength in the squat.

 

This not only punishes bad technique but may actually be strengthening a “weaker” muscle group.  Neither of which can be corrected from the competition lifts alone.  Lifting lighter weights with good technique does not hold up well under maximal attempts.

 

The amount of success that I have had from this approach has even surprised me.  Now it is just a matter of utilizing this approach while managing the performance/fatigue scale of each athlete.  That is a story for another day.

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Embracing the Uncertainty of Strength Training: What Do We Really Know About Volume?

Written by; Kevin Cann

 

I have not been coaching the sport of powerlifting for too long.  This past Nationals was my 3rdone overall.  It is pretty crazy to look back and see how I was doing things from then to now.  In the beginning I told my lifters to just follow the program.

 

Hit those percentages and move on.  This worked very well as I believe it was aligned with my skills as a coach.  I was limited in my abilities but understood the layout of the program.  I began to see that there were some flaws to this and began changing things up.

 

Over the course of the next couple years I learned from as many other coaches as possible.  I have had some great conversations, made friends with these coaches, and learned a lot.  This really sped up my learning.  How we do things changed pretty rapidly based off of some of these conversations.

 

These coaches do things very differently from each other.  However, they all have pretty good success with their athletes.  I truly believe each of these coaches’ systems matches their skill set well.  Coaching is a skill.

 

With all of these different systems working well it can make things a bit confusing.  It also makes it a lot of fun.  It also raised a lot of questions for me.  Back in the fall, before nationals I sat down and really thought to myself about ways in which I can improve as a coach.

 

I asked myself a few questions and began to realize there were certain things we believe to be true, but it just doesn’t hold up to what we see.  I decided to trust myself more and the knowledge base I have as a coach and to embrace the uncertainty of training.

 

Some of the questions I asked myself were:

 

  1. How important is volume?
  2. How does fatigue affect training and can we truly monitor it?
  3. Is lifting heavy more dangerous than not and how much does that actually affect recovery?
  4. How important is frequency?
  5. Sheiko always told me technique was the most important aspect of training. Technique is a person’s skill under weight.  What do I know about skill development and can I train strength like a skill?

 

I will attack all of these questions in articles maybe.  Let’s see how far we get with the first one and go from there.  I tend to have a lot to say and I enjoy talking about this stuff.

 

How important is volume? We know that volume is important. We can’t just come into the gym and do 1 squat per week and get stronger.  There is a minimum effective dose that is necessary to get stronger and to make a more resilient lifter.  Higher chronic workloads have been shown to decrease injury risk.

 

We also know that if our short-term volumes exceed what we are prepared for our risk of injury increases. This is the acute chronic work ratio (ACWR) that I have discussed quite frequently over the last year.

 

I track daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly volumes by way of total tonnage, number of lifts, and average intensities.  I would use this information to design pre-meet blocks.  I would aim to increase volume or keep volume the same by increasing average intensity.

 

This worked frequently, but it also didn’t work 100% of the time.  I think the problem was that I cannot pinpoint someone’s exact volumes that would be “optimal” for that person.  I think I use too many variations for this to work because some come with lower weights being used.

 

I started working with Jeremy Hartman in August.  We were having a conversation and bells literally went off.  He had asked me about the program and how it was going. It was very different than what I was used to, and I told him how I liked having the heavier set at the end.

 

His response was “I like it to make sure we are getting a training stimulus.”  I immediately thought to myself “That’s it!”  I can’t pinpoint ideal volumes for everyone.  I do not possess that skillset and the variations throw off those numbers.

 

I can make sure we get at least a minimum effective training dose if I make sure we have a hard set in there.  By hard set I mean RPE 8.5-9.5.  I don’t want them missing reps, but if it happens, they need to be ok with it as it is part of the sport.

 

Previously they could increase weights on sets based off of these “intensity intervals” I came up with. Each rep range had a range of intensities for bar weight.  If they came in and they reported a normal to enhanced mood score they could increase weights up to the upper limit of that range.

 

If they came in and were not feeling well, they could drop it to the lower end, but no less.  This was to ensure that we kept our ACWR in the ranges that we wanted.  This worked better than not giving them that freedom.

 

There was a problem though. I was allowing the ACWR to dictate the weight on the bar without even noticing it.  There were days that lifters could have definitely gone up by more than what I allowed them.  My rules held them back.

 

I had a conversation with Tim Gabbett, the sports scientist that does the ACWR research, and he said that this is not a program, but a monitoring tool.  It should not be picking the weights.  The coach needs to use his eyes and gut feelings to make decisions.

 

I threw out the intensity intervals (without the lifters knowing) and began telling each lifter what to put on the bar.  We would get 1-2 hard sets for each lift each training day.  If a lifter needed a break, we just ran the numbers or decreased the weights a little.

 

In the past 3.5 months the results have been shocking.  The number of PRs that people are hitting for reps is mind blowing to me.

 

  1. Dave Rocklage-665lb squat (10lb PR), 315lb bench x 2 (best platform bench is 308lbs), deadlift 700lbs x 2 (best meet deadlift 666lbs)
  2. Danial Lau- 495lb Squat (20lb PR), 300lb bench x 2 (15lb all-time PR)
  3. Danielle Nguyen-consistently tripling her second squat attempt from November, 315lb deadlift x 2 (15lb all-time PR)
  4. Vicky Cai- 270lb squat (5lb PR), 330lb deadlift x 2 (335lbs is best)
  5. Emily Biberger- 305lb squat (5lb PR, tripled 285lbs last night for 2 sets)
  6. Tauri Green- Hit squat and bench PRs and has been handling 90% triples on the squat frequently on variations
  7. Kelly Gamache- tripled her 100% for 2 sets in her second squat session yesterday, benched 132lbs in August and hit 150lbs x 3 yesterday, doubled a 10lb all-time PR on deadlifts
  8. Ryan Valentine-Added 35lbs to his squat, doubled his best all-time bench press, and added 15lbs to his deadlift since Nationals
  9. Alyssa Orlando, doubled her best ever squat, hit a 10lb all-time bench PR wide grip
  10. Mike Damico-Added 64lbs to his total from October squatting 535lbs and deadlifting 655lbs
  11. Jess Ward- Handles over 90% for reps on a weekly basis
  12. Alex Tavares-Added 25lbs to his squat
  13. Ariel Bouvier- Has doubled 97% on a squat, doubled 5lbs under her best bench last night after a bunch of bench
  14. Alyssa Smith-Doubled a 20lb squat PR
  15. Doug Stuart-Doubled 3lbs over his best squat from Nationals
  16. Mark Doherty- Doubled his best squat for multiple sets
  17. Marilyn M-Doubled an all-time 15lb squat PR
  18. Julia Matteson- Added 30lbs to her squat
  19. Allie Ferreira- Added 10lbs to her squat for multiple singles, and hits reps on 100% deadlifts weekly

 

This isn’t even everyone. We haven’t even tested with many of the lifters.  These weights were hit mostly in training.  Most lifters are repping out lifts in the 90% and higher intensity ranges. There have been light days thrown in occasionally, but there has been one deload used in the group above in 3.5 months.

 

I have been making more decisions based off of what I see.  I use volumes to build workloads to ensure the lifters are prepared to handle these loads. I am truly using it as a monitoring tool and not allowing it to dictate weight on the bar.  We hit 1-2 hard sets and if there are more lifts scheduled we just back down to get the lifts in.

 

These results aren’t just due to lifting heavier.  It definitely plays a role though.  The answers to the other questions are just as important.  I will get to the next one in the next article.

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.

Dynamic Systems Theory and Powerlifting: Why I Use Variations

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I am writing this article to get some thoughts down on paper.  I am the type of person that wants to know why things work.  I enjoy having conversations with coaches that do things very differently than myself.  This is how we progress and grow.

 

When I first started regularly talking to Ryan Gleason and Zac Cooper, I used far less variation than I do now.  The variations I used were the Sheiko special exercises that always used competition foot and bar placement, grip, and pulling style.

 

They challenged me to try some other exercises and I did with some very good success.  I now will perform opposite stance deadlifts as the only deadlift in a whole block.  This is a far cry from what I used to do.  I will explain why very shortly.

 

Last week I had a long talk with Jason Tremblay of the Strength Guys.  This conversation really got my wheels turning.  The Strength Guys have had much more success than me and they do things very differently.

 

We both believe that tracking volumes and average intensities is critical to athlete progress.  However, how we manage those volumes and intensities is very different.  TSG doesn’t use variations like I do.  It is a very well laid out DUP plan with the competition lifts.

 

The less variables in training, the easier it is to track and assess.  This is basically the scientific method being practiced in real life. Change one thing at a time and see how it affects the lifter.  This is clearly a very successful way of doing things.

 

During this conversation I was questioning myself a bit.  Not in a bad way, but in a way that challenges my thinking.  Why do I use variations?  Is volume all that matters to getting better?  These were a couple of the questions I was writing down to think about.

 

I don’t think volume is the only thing that matters in terms of lifter progress.  We are more than a simple algebra problem.  Volume is based only on mechanical stress.  If mechanical stress was all that mattered, we would be able to predict and reproduce results.

 

For example, if 10,000lbs of added volume yielded a 5% strength gain in one block, it should do the exact same thing in each subsequent block.  However, we know this isn’t true.  This does not mean that volume is not important, it absolutely is, but may be for other reasons than just mechanical stress, like motor control.

 

We know we need to overload the athlete for them to get stronger.  However, I looked back at my 3 years of training with Sheiko.  I had blocks that lasted 4-6 months at times where my volumes didn’t spike at any point.

 

The results of some of these blocks were some of the best progress I made.  These were beyond beginner gain periods as well.  I then thought about my 20ish weeks with Jeremy Hartman.  My volumes are much lower, but my squat and deadlift progress seems to be going very well.

 

We can overload the athlete in a number of ways.  We can overload them with more volume.  We can also overload them with more intensity.  We can also overload their efficiency.  We can improve technique and performing more reps with technical efficiency overloads this efficiency.  This overloading of efficiency creates a stable movement pattern that is harder to breakdown under heavier weights.

 

Hartman encouraged me to continue experimenting with things in the gym.  I started to use high bar wide stance squats quite a bit.  I initially was using this variation to teach lifters how to “push their knees out” in the squat.

 

It definitely helped with that quite a bit, but there was something else that this variation was correcting, and that was the pitching forward out of the hole on the squat. From a mechanical perspective this made absolutely no sense to me.

 

At the bottom of the squat knee extension demands are highest.  This means that the quads need to be strong enough to get that weight moving. If they aren’t the lifter will shift that weight to the hamstrings and pitch forward.

 

However. The high bar wide stance squats puts equal or less demands on the quads and more on the hip extensors like the glutes.  Hip extension demands are highest about halfway up in a competition squat, but at the bottom the hip extension demands are higher in a squat than they are in a deadlift, but still are not the primary movers in this position.

 

Even if the glutes were responsible for keeping the lifter upright out of the hole, they are not getting stronger like that in a 4-week block.  Quick increases in performance like that are nervous system driven.

 

If the lifter pitches forward at all in this variation, they need to quickly rectify it.  If they don’t, they will fall over.  This experience gets noted by the nervous system and will help predict future sensory feedbacks within similar movements.

 

The brain actually predicts sensory feedback before it experiences it.  This is one aspect that separates elite athletes from novice athletes, their ability to predict this feedback to overcome it.  In the squat example above the brain learns that if the lifter pitches forward too much they will fall over.

 

We bring the competition lift back in and the brain uses this data to compute expectations for the lift. This happens in both conscious and unconscious states.  The brain predicts that if the lifter falls forward out of the hole they can fall forward and lose balance.  It then alters motor commands to rectify this.

 

As the lifter squats the brain is interpreting the sensory feedback of the lift.  If it senses the pitching forward, it will draw upon the experience of the variation to quickly rectify that issue.  If this happens this is usually an improvement from what it looked like before.

 

This is my understanding of the Dynamic Systems Theory (DST).  The brain has expectations for what the lift should “feel” like.  This again happens at both the conscious and unconscious levels.  This is one explanation of how your expectations become part of your physiology, whether pain or performance.

 

Variations can alter those expectations and help us come up with better motor control patterns.  I believe there is a best way to lift for optimal performance.  In the squat, hips and shoulders rising together should happen for everyone.  If it doesn’t, we will fix it.  I also believe the knees caving in is a loss of control.  We will attack that to get better.

 

We do this by altering the environment in ways to create these experiences with the lifter to draw upon. This also plays a role when things go bad.  What if the lifter pitches forward on a very heavy third attempt squat?  If they don’t have experiences to draw upon once the brain receives this sensory feedback they may not have the ability to finish the lift.

 

I have lifters use box squats to train this position.  They do not sit on the box, they just touch it, but they push the hips back harder than they normally do.  They have to drive the hips forward and chest back off of the box.  This gives them that experience to pull from if the brain receives sensory feedback that the lifter is in this position.

 

I am still learning more about this stuff.  I like giving my lifters the variability to explore different positions and movements. Find the positions where the lifter may be “weaker” and attack it.  I often will do this while I remove the exercise that shows the breakdown I am trying to fix.

 

If we keep that exercise in the program and practice “bad” repetitions it can make it more difficult to rectify it as that is already the preferred motor control pattern and we just continue practicing it.  This engrains it even further.  This even means I will remove the competition lifts for a period of time far out from competition.

 

Ultimately we want to alter the environment to make predictable changes.  As I said in a conversation with Jason last night, I believe a DUP program only utilizing the competition lifts does this.  Changing intensities and repetition schemes is variability.

 

It comes down to how important technique is to the coach.  3 years under Sheiko and I believe that technique is what drives training. The Eastern Europeans believe that breakdowns are not from weak muscles but lack of neuromuscular control.  My experiences have led me to believe that this is true.

 

That person with the pitching in the squat doesn’t have weak quads typically.  They can usually leg press more than they can squat.  I am not sure the leg press even has any carryover as strengthening the quads in a non-squat pattern probably doesn’t carryover.  This is why the majority of volume needs to come from the competition lifts.

 

The variations need to be ones that have an outcome on the competition lifts.  With an experienced coach this outcome will be more predictable and will not be a guess.  This is probably why many coaches do not use variations as much.  They were guessing which ones would result in changes without looking at the motor control aspects of the lift.

 

Coaches like Sheiko and Dietmar Wolf use a lot of variations in their programs.  I think this is because they focus on the motor control, or technique strategies of the lifts as opposed to just strength.  A program with limited variations and focused on overloading volumes is one in which the primary focus is strength over technique.

 

Both are highly successful as we have seen from Sheiko and Wolf and coaches such as Jason and the Strength Guys.  I think ultimately it comes down to how the coach creates a system based off of these principles.

 

I have run into problems in the past when I would get away from my core beliefs that technique is important and only focus on strength.  That is not how my system works.  If TSG tried to use all variations it would throw off their data and their program.

 

Just because we do things differently it doesn’t mean we cannot get along and learn from one another. Talking to Jason led to me reading more on motor control.  My discussions with Zac Cooper, Ryan Gleason, Arian Khemesi, Jeremy Hartman, and Nick Guidice have helped me progress my system over time to keep getting results from my lifters.