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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I would Rather Overshoot than Undershoot: Why I am not Concerned with Missed Reps

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

When I first started getting involved in powerlifting one major piece of information that was drilled into me was that you should not miss reps in training.  This belief is still carried on strong within the powerlifting world and for good reasons.

 

For one, making reps builds confidence through building success.  You get used to making reps and you definitely build some confidence. The other statement that would get made is that you don’t get stronger from missing reps.

 

I followed these guidelines for years and with good success.  However, there were a few things that I noticed.  For one, you had to use lighter weights and always took a more conservative approach.  Many of my lifters would get scared of the heavier weights.

 

My lifters also became too scared of actually missing reps.  It was something they shouldn’t do, so they naturally didn’t want to do it. This leads to more conservative competition performances.

 

I began to question this thought process.  It is easier for me to compare this sport to others in which I participated in.  I played college soccer.  For my college team and many of my club teams growing up I took the majority of the dead ball kicks.

 

On numerous occasions I have sailed balls over the net, didn’t get enough spin on it to bend it where I wanted, and overshot teammates.  There were also occasions where I put it exactly where I wanted or in the back of the net.

 

Those previous mis-strikes didn’t deter me on future kicks.  In fact, they gave me information to adjust.  This is one of many reasons why I feel a constraints-led approach is the way to go.  It is ok to mess up.  No sport has a 100% success rate.

 

Think of hitting a baseball. If we were looking for a 100% success rate the ball would never leave the tee.  Failure is part of sports.  It would be pretty boring without it.  You can’t fear messing up.  You also can’t let it rip you apart when it happens.  This is mental weakness.

 

What are the negatives of missed reps in training?  You lose confidence?  If you can’t handle missing a rep without losing confidence your mental game needs a lot of improvements.  Its ok to be pissed off after it.  You should care enough to be pissed.  However, if it rattles your confidence that is a problem that needs to be worked on and there is nothing wrong with that.  We will work on it.

 

Is missing a rep dangerous? Nope.  As long as the athlete is prepared to handle the weight, it’s not dangerous.  Plenty of missed reps happen on the platform without injuries.  I hurt my back on a made attempt, so it is not any more dangerous.

 

Many will argue you miss out on the training volume.  This assumes you know the exact training volume down to the pound that that person needs. If you have that information you are the only one capable of calculating that.  You should use that to get rich.  I would buy it.

 

Using training volumes is an educated guess.  It is not an exact science.  I actually read some interesting research this morning saying that internal load is what drives progress not external load.

 

When we can’t nail down the ideal volumes for someone, we need to be sure our intensity is high enough to get a training stimulus.  I make sure my lifters get 1 to 2 of these hard sets per lift per day and we adjust on a daily and weekly basis as needed.  Nothing is written in stone.

 

Gauging internal load is very difficult.  Often lifters feel it is heavier than what it is.  I have had Kerry take 80% for a set of 10 that looked moderately hard for triples. She wasn’t the only one that experienced this.

 

My volumes better be on if I am giving her triples with something, she can hit for 10 at the end of all of the sets.  Literally that translates to an RPE 3.  Not heavy enough.  We are training so it will yield a training stimulus, but not the best one.

 

If I want to get a training stimulus, I want that triple to be HEAVY.  If we go up too much and only get a double, so what?  She performed a hard double that will definitely yield a training stimulus.  Is not getting that triple going to hinder progress?  If that triple wasn’t heavy enough it absolutely would.

 

So say that double is an RPE 9.5-10.  I definitely know we got a training stimulus, but to what extent can it hurt us?  Heavier sets may come with a greater recovery need. How much greater is that recovery need?

 

Most of my lifters train every other day.  Is it something that will last beyond that day off?  Chances are it won’t.  If it does, we adjust that training day as needed and make a note moving forward. Sometimes I don’t care about that day getting screwed up a little bit.  Training is a process that always needs to be adapted.  The program is nothing more than a rough draft guide to that process.

 

Often missing a rep allows you to assess what went wrong.  Were they nervous?  Did they just misgroove it because it was the first time touching that weight?  Was it just too heavy?  It gives you some information to adjust the training process. Make those adjustments and come back to it and see if it has improved.

 

If a set is really heavy you can just end everything right, there instead of doing backoffs.  You can back way down and still get the reps and skip accessories, or you just decide to plow through.  You have decisions you can make based off of the lifter and what is best for them at that current time.

 

I know I am probably an outlier in this, but I really don’t care if they miss reps.  It should not happen often at all, that is not what I am saying.  If it happens too frequently, we got to work on choosing the right weight to put on the bar. However, if it happens occasionally so what?

 

You got into this sport to put more weight on the bar.  You will miss reps, it is part of the sport.

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.

Understanding Plateaus from a Skills Perspective

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

Plateau is most likely the second dreaded word in powerlifting behind injury.  A plateau is bound to happen to every single lifter at some point.  Chances are some “Blast Through Your Plateau” articles are not going to help them.

 

I haven’t hit a bench PR in almost 2 years.  I am hoping to change that on Sunday with a small 2.5kg increase.  This would still be lower than my gym best.  It isn’t like I haven’t had coaches that don’t know what they were doing.

 

Kerry hit a small 2.5kg PR on her deadlift at Nationals in Orlando.  That is the only increase she has had on her deadlift in about 2 years. She has hit 350lbs in the gym, but we can’t reproduce it on the platform.  A change in bodyweight may explain it, but it is not the whole picture.

 

With Kerry we have tried increasing volumes, increasing intensities, lowering weights to fix technique, lots of variations, no variations, and even praying.  None of it has worked.  This has been extremely frustrating for the both of us.

 

We have been lucky enough to increase the other lifts enough to get that top 10 finish at Nationals. However, we need this deadlift to come up if we want to chase a podium spot in Chicago.  Something Kerry is more than capable of.

 

I have made it a point to dive deep into the understanding of skill acquisition.  My coaches have always emphasized technique as being very important.  Your technique is definitely a skill.  Strength is also a skill.  We can’t just address the mechanical stress aspect of it.

 

My issues with coaching Kerry was I was separating the 2 of them, skill and mechanical stress.  I would increase volume and intensity without addressing technique, or I would address technique without adequate mechanical stress.  Both are important to get stronger.

 

Kerry definitely needs to improve technique.  Kerry is an elite 52kg lifter.  Altering the coordination patterns of someone with this amount of skill in the sport is not easy.  I don’t think I understood the concepts fully before.  I may not understand the concepts fully now, but I definitely have a better understanding.

 

When someone of this skill level does not get better with repetitive practice, we have a situation where the lifter is stuck in what is referred to as a deep attractor state. Attractors are the stable and functional patterns of the person.

 

Kerry’s stable pattern on the deadlift is the knees being too straight and back rounding off of the floor.  Training can look much better, even with heavier weights, but once we hit 315lbs we see Kerry revert back to this stable state.

 

She could do multiple triples at 300lbs that use a lot of her legs off of the floor and everything moves together nicely.  Somehow a single at 15lbs more causes that to go back to the less than ideal technique. This poor technique has somehow become too stable within Kerry.

 

I need to figure out how to destabilize this pattern and make the body choose another attractor state. This is no easy task because of how stable this pattern is it literally weakens other coordination patterns that are similar to it.

 

There are 2 ways that we can approach this.  We can force a lot of variability on Kerry.  Theoretically the movement variability will weaken the strong attractor state and allow the body to transition to another one.

 

My job as a coach is to alter training that discourages the poor technique.  To do this I widened her feet on the deadlift.  Harder to round over and not use your legs here.  In the past when I attempted to fix technique, I want each rep to look perfect.  I need to encourage her to do what she normally does but find a way to alter her positions that forces her to perform with the better technique.

 

To quote “Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints Led Approach” by Keith Davids, Chris Button, and Simon Bennett:

 

“It may take some time for this approach to lead to long-term changes in behavior but given the amount of time invested in stabilizing the original technique, this should come as no surprise.”

 

In this case you just need to be patient.  Everyone learns at different rates.  A blessing in disguise here may be Kerry tweaking her back a bit.  It is nothing serious as she is still training, and we probably could push it hard if we wanted.  However, nothing is at stake at the Arnold, so we are going to work on some things and build it up to the meet.

 

This will be a good starting point moving forward.  Experiencing pain may give us a chance as it alters Kerry’s perceptions and emotions. Oftentimes after injuries we see the performer come back with a greater skill set.

 

To steal a quote from my dude Steph Allen DPT from a study by Walker published in 2007:

 

“…some athletes may recover beyond their pre-injury status either physically, psychologically, or both. After enduring the challenge of a long rehabilitation period, athletes may be more dedicated, focused, mentally tough, and may be physically stronger than they were pre-injury via the intensive strengthening activities required in rehabilitation.”

 

Kerry is already strong and is not in need of a long rehab, but the changes in emotions can have a positive effect.  I know for me when I am in pain, I become more focused on the task at hand.  I tell myself no mistakes or something bad can happen. I trust in my abilities to do this.

 

The other way we can attack this is by restricting the current movement.  The example in the text above looks at a tennis player.  If we wanted to discourage a two-handed backhand, we could make the athlete hold a ball in one hand.  This only allows them to use one hand to swing the racquet.

 

The problem with this is we can’t just not deadlift.  Kerry pulls sumo.  If I make her only pull conventional it reinforces her wanting to use more back than legs. This doesn’t mean we avoid this pattern though, but that is a different discussion.

 

I actually think pain can be a good constraint temporarily.  If the poor technique leads to pain it may force the body to find a better attractor state.  We need to be encouraging here and explain this is just temporary and her back is strong so that we don’t get into more trouble down the road, but for now this may force the body to choose another state, weakening the deep rooted one.

 

If possible, we will use this time to push a wide stance sumo deadlift where she will be required to use more legs and less back.  This does take away from her strengths in the pull a bit, but I believe it will be worth it. She squats 292lbs at 52kg, her legs are very strong as well.  I also think if we fix this it can lead to a healthier long-term training as she will handle more volumes if she uses more joints and muscles.  If she continues to use primarily back muscles, we will only deadlift one day per week because the load tolerance is less.

 

She will not like deadlifting one time a week so maybe that will force change in positions.  I would love to push the lifts at all points, but I kind of like Kerry so we will keep her upright as much as possible.

 

When you hit a plateau it fucking sucks.  I believe finding a good coach right from the start is critical for these situations. I never would have let Kerry pull in those positions from the beginning.  She pulled 300lbs in her first meet with lifters in that position. This is the one time her strength has probably worked against her.

 

I think I am better armed as a coach to address these issues now and she is a better lifter.  If not, we will just squat a world record.

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.