F#*$ Your Accessory Work

Written by: Kevin Cann


In a conversation with John Flagg (might have been on the Clinical Athlete podcast) he had pointed out that my training style is very similar to the training style of many weightlifters.  To be honest I have never thought about that before.


Weightlifting is the yacht club of the strength sports; I don’t want my reputation being destroyed by that getting out there.  This sparked an interest in the sport of weightlifting for me.


I got Quinn Henoch on the podcast to chat programming stuff.  I found this podcast “Weightlifting House” that is very good and definitely not just for weightlifters, and I got some good information on the training of various national teams within the sport.


When I first started working with Jeremy Hartman, he told me to watch this documentary on Pyros Dymas, the famous Greek weightlifter.  I developed a fascination with the Greek weightlifting system here.


Dymas did spend quite a bit of time in the Soviet System before the current day Greek system.  As did the rest of that Greek weightlifting Dream Team.  I know in Russia every kid does gymnastics and does not specialize in a sport until they are a little older.


This is how the Greek system is today as well.  Children are encouraged to play as many sports as possible and specialization does not come until later.  Year 1 of weightlifting seems to be unloaded positions of the clean and jerk and the snatch and GPP stuff like jumps and pull-ups.  This is also similar to the Soviet System.


Year 2, the Greeks only perform 8 exercises.  The front and back squat, the Olympic lifts, and a couple variations of the Olympic lifts. They hit a maximal attempt only 1 time every 2 weeks at this stage.  The majority of the work is done between 80-85% of 1RM.


In the 3rdyear of training the exercises drop down to just 4.  They hit maximal attempts every 4thor 5thweek. During that training block after the acquiring of a new max, they work up to 100% very frequently, sometimes multiple times per day.


The advanced athletes are even required to take it when they know they will miss.  The Greeks see benefits to missing weights.  Every 3rdor 4thweek is a lighter week with a drop in volume and only working up to 85% of 1RM.


Every year they have a transition period that lasts 15-20 days where they are eased back into the handling of maximal attempts.  This fascinates me because their program is only 4 exercises.  There are not variations and there is zero accessory work.


Dymas competed in 4 straight Olympics at a gold medal level in this system.  Part of that long-term success requires you to stay healthy.  I am sure the coach makes day to day decisions in the gym.  In any high level weightlifting gym there is always a coach sitting there a few feet away.


This has really got me thinking over the last year.  How important is variation and how important are accessories?  Time is a constraint and we need to maximize our time in the gym to drive high level performance.


I find variation to be very important.  Many powerlifters played sports growing up, many did not.  I think building up strength at various angles is our way of addressing the chances that the lifter specialized in another sport early in life or did not play sports at all.  Americans get into this sport later in life.


I also find variations to be important for skill development.  There are more efficient ways to lift than others.  Variation allows each lifter to explore those movements and find the ones that work best.  The coach can place constraints on these movements that help guide that process.


All skills and strength follow a non-linear pattern.  When one skill regresses, another better be there to pick it up.  For example, maybe you pull sumo, but you start to see a decline in sumo performance.  If you train conventional hard and make sure you can lift numbers close to your best, you can switch and potentially hit a PR.  We see this at times with PPS.


Variation also gives you a wide skillset to pick from.  Let us say that a lifter gets stuck at the knees with the sumo deadlift because they were out of position off the floor.  This most likely looks very similar to a conventional deadlift for the back.  If the lifter has that skill with a conventional, they have a stronger chance of locking out that weight.


I choose to use many different exercises in my training than just a few for those reasons.  I could go on with that as well, but you guys get the point.  As for accessories (think bodybuilding type work) I have always been skeptical.


It just does not make sense to me that a 50lbs chest fly is going to help you bench 400lbs.  I get the theory a bigger muscle has more potential, blah blah blah.  Your body adapts to the stressors placed upon it.  Muscle growth will occur from training the lifts, more is not necessary.


I have used this argument in the past, that accessories help to increase load tolerance at joints and may help to reduce injury risk.  This theory is also nice, but just not true.  Fact is, we don’t know shit about what causes injuries.


Tendons and ligaments don’t respond better to light weights and higher reps to help protect you from heavier weights.  I think we may believe this stuff because accessories help to control loads.  Lifters tend to “leave room” in the program for the accessories.


Increasing performance and reducing injury risk is a contradictory statement.  You need to do more to perform at a higher level.  Doing more increases injury risk.  As a coach we need to take the information that we have and make day to day decisions based off of that information.  Basically, don’t train like an asshole.


As a coach we need to educate each lifter to understand what pain is and what it isn’t, and we need to create an environment that allows them to learn those lessons in the gym as well. Through education and smart training we can build resilient lifters.


Over time we give them the tools to navigate painful situations and to keep training. Self-efficacy decreases disability. Self-efficacy also increases strength through developing the skill of training.  Making good decisions that allows the lifter to get the most out of each training day.


Over time we get more high quality training days (doing more), and less missed training days (injury risk), but that is all that we can do.  We don’t understand enough about injuries to say that we should spend time with accessories as they are “protective.”  Shit will happen at some point.  Lifters should expect it, not fear it, and be equipped to deal with it.


Going into Nationals, we are dumping all accessories out of the program.  We are going to spend time doing the things that we know will make us stronger. I like how the Greeks setup training. We aren’t going to just do singles as grinding out a rep in powerlifting might take around 10 seconds.  We need to be prepared for that.


However, we train heavy every single day in the gym.  We will continue to do that.  That is the sport.  This just requires the coach and the lifter to pay attention as training becomes a lot more than numbers on a spreadsheet.  This is the new standard.

Hierarchies and Hypertrophy

Written by: Kevin Cann


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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