You Get What You Earn and Is Weightlifting that Different from Powerlifting?

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I am going to combine two article topics here as there is some carryover.  Just a warning that this could get very long, but reading is good for you.  I follow this IG account “Flowrestling.”  They show mostly wrestling highlights, and some of those kids are fast, strong, and extremely athletic.  I enjoy watching it between everyone else lifting weights.

 

There was a video of wrestling great Terry Brands.  Brands was an NCAA champ and a world champ that failed to make his first Olympic team. He made some changes and came back to not only make the team 4 years later, but to earn a bronze medal.  This video was titled “You get what you earn.”

 

As Nationals rolls around this is an important message.  Brands was talking about the first words his father had said to him in his hotel room, “You get what you earned.  You don’t always know what the reasons are.  You think you might have been the hardest working guy.  You think you might have done everything right, but you get what you earned, figure it out.  If you don’t want it to happen again figure it out.”

 

We live in a day where no one is accountable for their actions.  On a Weightlifting House Podcast, Josh Gibson asked Zach Krych, his thoughts on the 10 years he trained at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado.  He talked about lifters not bringing the same intensity as the lifters from other countries. He also talked about lifters living far outside of their weight classes in training.  He then made a comment “The Chinese aren’t doing that.”

 

This is so true of American culture.  We want everything, but without sacrificing anything.  There was another episode with a Romanian weightlifter that was asked about American weightlifting and his response was “Americans do not have patience. It takes patience to add weight to the bar (to be competitive).”

 

If you want to be competitive in this sport you need to make sacrifices and do everything right.  This isn’t just for 8 weeks before a competition. Olympians in weightlifting train for 20 years, or more in many cases, starting at 8 years old.  Powerlifters think after a couple of years of training they should be competing at Nationals.  Don’t get me wrong, this happens frequently, but finishing 80that Nationals is not competitive.

 

However, that gives the lifters this false sense that they are doing everything right and they are just going to climb to the top with the same attitude and work ethic.  I will assure you that this will not happen.

 

If you want to get to the top, or see progress beyond a certain point, it takes much more than just carrying on.  You need to maintain a bodyweight year round, you need to bring focus, effort, and intensity into each and every rep, you need to make good training decisions, and you need to do this consistently.  Every time you choose to go out with your friends and drink, or take it easy on a training day, someone else is not doing that and is gaining ground or getting further away from you.  This goes back to “The Chinese are not doing that.”  This is not just being consistent for 8 weeks, but for years.  This is your choice though.  You do not have to make these sacrifices if you just want to compete at Nationals one day and have fun.  This sport can fit into your life anyway you want and that is what makes it great.  If you do want to be the best possible lifter you can be in your career, it requires much more than just showing up.  Every action of every day needs to be geared to that goal.  I am going to quote another wrestling great, and former title challenger in the UFC, Chael Sonnen “If you aren’t willing to go too far, you will never go far enough.”

 

Weightlifting in other countries seem to have this attitude.  I have had a recent obsession with weightlifting culture and the sport in general.  The question I have been asking myself lately is “Is weightlifting really that different from powerlifting?”  You substitute SBD for Virus and I think the sports have more in common than what many people typically believe.

 

I think weightlifting is a higher skilled sport, but I think that powerlifting is more skilled than people think.  It takes a lot of skill to squat 700lbs, that is why not many people can do it.  Sheiko was actually a weightlifting coach until he had a weightlifter that he knew would be very good at powerlifting.

 

Much of Sheiko’s program was similar to that of a weightlifter.  There were a lot of positional variations that definitely had weightlifting influence.  I would consistently repeat the same weights and same variations as well.  Exercises would change weekly, but if I had 5×5 70% squat with chains in my program, I would perform that around a handful of times in a 12 week period.

 

After 12 weeks, there may be a test.  Hopefully we add some weight onto our maxes and then we repeat a similar program with the new maxes.  This is very similar to weightlifting.  The Greeks test every 4-5 weeks and then run the same program with new loads.

 

Sheiko was big on variations and load variability.  I also have a bias towards those two pieces, but the premise is very similar.  I also like the intensities of the Greek weightlifting system.  I incorporate much of both training styles into my programs.

 

The Greeks will hit a new max and then hit that same number for the next 3-4 weeks.  Repeating that new max over and over.  Sheiko would use a variation with the same reps and weight over and over.  You get better at that weight and exercise the more you practice it.

 

I started programming prescribed singles for my lifters.  This single is somewhere between their best double and triple.  On a good day it is an RPE 8, on a tough day it is an RPE 8.5/9.  This is a hard, but doable weight that causes some technique breakdown and brings some emotions into the lifter.  We repeat this weight for 3-4 weeks and then we will add some weight to the bar and repeat the process.

 

After the singles we perform the variations like we always have.  These typically work on the technical inefficiencies we see with the single.  We removed a lot of the bodybuilding stuff and replaced it with more barbell stuff like snatch grip deadlifts, good mornings, front squats, floor press, and so on. I am actually thinking of leaving these in long term instead of waving them out.  Why not build these up?  I think we often just change for the sake of change.

 

I think the argument of bodybuilding exercises are to build up weaknesses and keep things healthy. The variations will build up weaknesses within the lifts better than isolated exercises.  I think for beginners with limited body awareness and coordination, those exercises are still important and there will be more in their programs.

 

After Nationals, when volume drops, we will add more bodybuilding stuff in as well just to give them a bit of a physical and mental break from the grinds of training.  Most weightlifting systems that I am aware of forces the kids early on to experience a wide range of sports.  This is true in both Russia and Greece.

 

Once they enter the teenage years they begin to specialize more.  In America, kids specialize early in life, or do not participate in sports before entering the sport of powerlifting.  This is why I think variation is so important here.  It helps counter some of those pieces of American culture.  Bodybuilding/GPP exercises can fit in here as well for newer lifters.

 

I feel most things usually fall in the middle somewhere.  Powerlifters probably overestimate the importance of bodybuilding type exercises and weightlifters may underestimate their importance.  A logical implementation for me is to include them in the program after major competitions but remove them as the competition season gets into full swing.  They can come and go based off of volume of the lifts and as nagging things pop up.

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

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Fixing Technique is More Complex Than You Think

Written By: Kevin Cann

 

I was reading Sheiko’s book this week.  If you have not picked it up, I highly recommend it.  It is a very thorough write up on the technique and programming for the sport of powerlifting.

 

I was coached by him for 3 years.  However, my knowledge base at the time for the sport was literally nothing.  I learned a lot, but my basis for understanding the information I was learning was very minimal.

 

I thought I understood it more than what I really did.  Fast forward 3 plus years and my knowledge base has grown by reading more, watching people lift, lifting myself, and having a strong network of coaches and other professionals that are smarter than I am.

 

There was one paragraph I was reading where Sheiko stated

 

“The weakest point of a powerlifter’s technical preparation is the process of acquiring and mastering sports techniques.  This is caused by a lack of fundamental and advanced methods of the process.  This problem explains the existence of even more blank spots in the understanding of the sports technique.  In other words, while advanced powerlifters may be strong and may even have a good knowledge of programming, their deep understanding of programming principles and powerlifting techniques is often very limited.”

 

When I first started coaching powerlifters, I just followed his instructions and recommendations for average relative intensities, number of lifts, and special exercises to fix certain technical breakdowns.  I made sure to use progressive overload of volumes and I saw some pretty good results with this.

 

However, I also ran into some issues as well.  I felt the lifts were too light and the lifters were responding better to higher intensities at times.  This is something I still believe.  I also noticed that the variations would help technique, but not entirely correct it. I chalked this up to the same issue, the weights were too light to have carryover.

 

None of this was true. This falls back on my inexperience and lack of understanding of the principles of motor control.  This is exactly what that paragraph was stating. I had a thorough understanding of muscles involved at various angles and I was able to communicate what I wanted from my lifters well.  This definitely had a positive impact on their technique.

 

Altering motor control patterns (technique) is much more complex than many people believe.  It is not just seeing something and inserting a variation in that slot of the program.  This can help a little but is usually inefficient in a number of ways. I feel this is why the majority of people that do not use variations feel they do not work.  It is a limited understanding of motor control.

 

This does not mean you need to use variations to be successful.  Many successful coaches, that I respect a lot, do not use variations. Many of these coaches have been much more successful than I have as well.

 

In order to change technique/motor control we need to create an environment that challenges the expectations and perceptions of the lifter.  These expectations and perceptions are not all conscious thought, but also subconscious thought.

 

Our brain actually predicts sensory feedback and preplans motor control strategies based off of this information.  As we go through the movement it interprets the sensory feedback and makes adjustments.

 

In the beginning when you are learning, the brain has very limited information to draw from.  This is why the lift will be executed with limited control and high amounts of variability.  Over time the brain uses the sensory feedback to come up with better strategies.

 

The problem with this is that the brain does not know the technique necessary to lift maximal weights. We need to be able to guide the brain to that planned strategy.  Many will argue that the person will figure out what works best for them over time.

 

The problem with this, is the best strategy at this time, may not be what is best for the long term. I do believe in allowing the person to self-organize technique, but I also believe there is a way to lift that yields greater success.

 

The differences in individuals will be grip, stance width, toe angle, and maybe some subtle changes in bar placement on the squat.  However, the technique other than that will be pretty much the same.

 

I am not going to go into detail on that technique here for time reasons.  However, as a coach we need to identify what each position of the lift should look like.  From there we need to identify where breakdowns are occurring and identify the most important ones.  This is a skill that comes with experience.

 

Once we identify the technical breakdown, we need to setup the training environment to correct it. This is not only picking the right exercise.  It is also about picking the correct intensity and the correct volume.  On top of those things the lifter’s mood, beliefs, and confidence levels all play a role in the execution of the lift.

 

We also need to identify when an exercise may not be working to our benefit.  We also need to do all of this while still hitting baseline volumes so that the lifter does not get weaker.  This is no easy task.

 

We need to do enough to alter the brain’s perception and preplanned organization of the motor task. This means addressing all of the matters that I mentioned above.  The rate at which people respond to these changes also depends on the individual.

 

This all starts with effective communication with the lifter.  They need to know what I am looking for and the purpose of each exercise. I want to educate each lifter as much as possible.  Effective communication is also important so that they understand how psychological factors affect technique and strength.

 

If confidence is holding a lifter back, we need to address this and work on this as much as possible in the gym.  From there we pick exercises to fix these issues and take out ones that might work against us. In some cases this means removing the competition lift for a period of time in favor of an alternate stance or other variations.

 

This time period where we remove it, we remove its ability to hinder changes from happening.  Our brain has a preplanned response for this lift and every time we do it, it can reinforce the old pattern we are attempting to change.  There is also a loss in technique that occurs from removing it that can be improved upon when it comes back into the program.  These improvements can be difficult to make when the lift is left in there for a prolonged period of time due to adaptive resistance.

 

We need to put the right exercises in the program with the correct volumes and intensities.  From there we need to watch how the lifter responds.  I have variations that I go to to fix certain technique issues, but not everyone responds to them the same way.

 

I will often see a variation help a little bit in a block, but not to the same affect as I would hope. From there I may alter the variation in a way to elicit a better response.  Once that change is made, I will again go back to observing how the lifter responds throughout the block.

 

At this point the comp lift may or may not have been put back into the program. If it hasn’t, we will bring it back in and see what it looks like and reassess where we are at. From this reassessment a new wave of exercises will come back in and we repeat the process.

 

Depending on the level of the lifter, as an important competition draws near, we accept technique for what it is, and the majority of the volume comes from competition lifts. I will push volumes at this point to a peak and then volume will drop off as the competition approaches.  After the competition we will repeat the entire process.

 

Under heavy weights we will always see some breakdown.  This could be a loss of speed, change in torso angle, and many other factors including psychological.  We will never achieve perfect form, but instead it is a lifelong attempt to get there. This is how we develop steady progress in lifters.

 

We are not just a bag of muscles.  Motor control tasks are extremely complex, even more simple ones like in the sport of powerlifting.  However, it is still a sport and the appropriate drills need to be planned in practice in order to achieve success in competitions.

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.

A Lot Of Words About Variations and How I Utilize Them

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I love hearing the perspectives of different coaches.  I had the pleasure of talking with Jason Tremblay of the Strength Guys yesterday for a second time.  We discussed the differences in our programs.

 

If you do not know who Jason is, you should.  He coaches some absolute monsters that include Taylor Atwood, Eli Burke, Sean Moser, and Owen Hubbard.  As a group I believe the Strength Guys analyze volumes and manage lifter loads better than anyone.

 

We are very similar in that aspect.  We track volumes of each lifter and attempt to surpass previous best volumes to drive totals.  Load management is a critical factor, the most important factor, in lifter success.

 

Our differences come with our use of variations.  I use a lot of variations and they do not.  For them they keep it as simple as possible, so they know what works and what doesn’t. Think of the scientific method being applied in real life.  It makes a ton of sense.  The podcast comes out in a couple weeks, listen to it to hear more.

 

We were also discussing how so many different coaches have seen success doing things very differently. Other coaches try to mimic some of these ways and do not see quite the same success.  I find this to be extremely interesting.

 

I am not trying to change anyone’s mind about the use of variations.  I think it is a good topic that is not completely understood.  I don’t think they are necessary to get stronger, but in my system they are necessary.

 

I was fortunate enough to start my powerlifting journey as a coach and an athlete as a student of Boris Sheiko.  There were some foundational things here that were instilled upon me.  For one, I believe technique is the most important aspect of training.

 

A large portion of my volume came from variations to correct technique.  In fact, approximately 60% of my total volume came from what Sheiko called his special exercises.  These exercises would be executed in the comp stance and comp grip.  It could involve pauses in various positions, accommodating resistance, partial reps, and anything else he felt would help correct my technique issues.

 

I know technique is another topic that coaches tend to disagree upon.  How important is it really?  Some will argue as long as you are safe and lifting within the rules of the sport you are ok and can get stronger.  This is definitely true as long as your coach has a solid understanding of load management.

 

My system is set up in a way where we identify areas of technical breakdown and utilize the appropriate variations to fix this.  This worked for Sheiko, so it is good enough for me.  This doesn’t mean that we just lift light, or I yell continuous cues. We push these variations and we see how it helps.

 

If it helps a little bit, we tweak it a bit either by adjusting the variation, advancing it, or adding weight.  During this time we do not tend to get very far away from our volume baselines.  This is either up or down.  There will be days that are above baseline, days at baseline, and days below baseline for recovery.

 

The variables I tend to change here are through exercise selection and the sets and reps of those chosen exercises.  As a competition draws near, we will begin to push volumes and the majority of our volume will come from the competition lifts themselves.

 

Oftentimes when we remove the variations and bring the competition lifts back in, we see a big increase in performance.  This is often without increasing volumes more than previous blocks.  Some variations require much more effort than others and this could be an explanation.  However, I have my theories.

 

The law of specificity states that the exercises need to be similar in joint angles, forces, and speeds for maximum carryover.  This is usually the argument for using the competition lifts as they are very specific. This is true.

 

However, we do not take one rep maxes every single time we train, or at least we shouldn’t.  Therefore, the forces are a bit different.  With that said, we know that volume drives results. This is because progressive overload is also important.

 

We need to provide enough mechanical stress to the lifter to force their body to adapt.  Not all mechanical stress is created equal.  Sets with rep ranges between 3 and 6 with 1 to 4 reps in reserve seem to yield the greatest benefits for strength.  We then need to plan enough sets at those rep ranges to overload the athlete.

 

Mechanical stress is not the only stress that matters.  A lifter’s perceptions and beliefs are also an important part of physiological adaptation. This is a big rabbit hole to go down, but something that needs to be considered.  If mechanical stress was all that mattered our results would be reproducible every time, but as we all know sometimes, we don’t hit PRs.

 

With that said, I am not sure overload needs to continuously happen to drive progress.  I feel a certain baseline needs to be maintained and this is different for each lifter.  I also feel we only need to increase volumes slightly more than that current baseline to achieve results.

 

As the lifter gets new 1RMs we can use those numbers to increase volumes.  The lifter could perform the same number of lifts at the same intensities and volumes will increase.  If the lifter fails to increase their 1RM we need to add more sets.

 

Variations give us another option.  We can use similar loads but increase effort.  This allows me to hold off on driving volumes and work on some technique things I may feel necessary to clean up.

 

Variations are more specific to the lift than many people think.  For the deadlift it seems that training status affects quadriceps activity, but style (sumo or conventional) does not affect glutes, hamstrings, adductor, or erector muscle activity.  The only difference is the wider our feet the harder the quads need to work and in a conventional deadlift the calves matter.

 

This may not make sense at first, but it does when you look at the biomechanics.  The hip extensor moment arm is the length of the femur no matter where you put your feet.  The wider you go, what you lose in the sagittal plane you pick up in the frontal plane.

 

A conventional puller that has their hips rise before the bar, may need to improve the prelift loading strategies and or strengthen the quads.  Oftentimes we see a lifter pull in a medium stance sumo deadlift and the hips stay down.  This teaches the lifter how to load the weight prelift into the hips and legs and still targets the same muscle group to the same amount, with a little more emphasis on the quads.

 

This also gives the lifter a different problem to solve under similar conditions as their competition lift.  This can increase motor development and the skill within the lift.  I remember Sheiko talking about variations being a problem to solve for the lifter.

 

Make them pause in a position where they are not in a strong biomechanical position and they will figure it out.  For the example above a pause 5cm off of the ground would be very hard to hold in that position.  The variation punishes bad positions.

 

Switching the stance in the example above is a bit different.  Oftentimes the lifter will not be very strong in that opposite stance pull.  However, if we treat this like we would their competition lift we can get some beginner gains out of it.  Fast strength gains are a result of neuromuscular adaptation.  The lifter gets rewarded for learning how to load the weight prelift and use their legs off of the floor.  We bring back the competition deadlift and we tend to see a great improvement in performance, both technique and weight lifted.

 

The same can be said about the squats.  A change in bar position and foot position appears to have similar quadricep, erector, and glute muscle activity.  A wider stance squat may hit the glutes a bit more.  The hamstrings differ in the squat from the deadlift as they seem to stiffen up to assist the glutes helping the quads and the quads helping the glutes. A lot more needs to be in sync for the squat to work in my opinion.

 

However, the squat and the deadlift utilize the same muscle groups but requires greater skill than the deadlift and may be less taxing to the lifter.  We can use squat volume to drive deadlift volume.  I like doing this in the offseason to decondition the lifter and give them a break.

 

Even though squat volume stays around the same if not a bit more, the “lower body” lift volume is much lower.  Remember the muscles used are the same.  When a competition approaches the squats become more specific and the increased deadlift volume can drive squat volume since the muscles are the same.

 

In the same manner as the deadlifts we can give the lifter different problems to solve.  I use a lot of the Sheiko special exercises here, but I also change bar placement and foot placement a lot.  This comes with a good advantage in my opinion.

 

The Sheiko special exercises require technique to be perfect to execute them.  However, the variations not in comp stance and bar placement, I don’t care as much about.  I may put a lifter into a wider stance squat to teach them to push their knees out.

 

I will tell them that is the point of the exercise and have them focus on it.  However, if the knees come in a little bit I don’t care as much. I just want to see conscious effort to not allow that to happen. This means we can load the living shit out of it.  This can help increase overall effort and also increase weekly volumes. ( I can use a more technical exercise at lighter weights on another day to achieve a lower stress day.  A pause halfway up squat at 70% for sets of 4 is very difficult, but load can be below baseline). I work the other variations up to normal training percentages as the comp lifts.   With conscious effort, we bring the feet back into a comp stance and the knees stay out.

 

The bench is a little trickier as grip affects almost everything.  However, one thing to keep in mind with the bench is all of the prime movers increase in muscle activity with load.  I am a fan of benching heavy frequently for this reason.

 

I know Dietmar Wolf uses a lot of variations similar to what I have mentioned and states it is for lifter health.  I am not sure that the variations are what leads to a healthy lifter, but they allow for effective load management, which definitely matters for lifter health. Variations are harder than comp lifts and can’t be loaded the same way.  However, the effort can be the same as hard comp lifts.  It allows you to train hard all of the time.

 

The muscle activity isn’t different enough in the variations to completely sell me on strengthening weak muscles.  I think there is something else there.  I had an epiphany when I realized high bar wide stance squats were helping lifters stay more upright in their comp squats.

 

There are a little greater thoracic extension demands and perhaps the hip extensors are emphasized more, but more importantly if they pitch forward at all in this variation they will fall over.  It teaches them to keep their hips more under the bar.

 

Lifters will report feeling their quads a lot more sore on these.  These lifters tend to pitch a bit under heavy loads in their comp squats. The emphasis on the quads is not more in this exercise than the comp squat.  I think it just teaches the lifter how to use them and puts the hamstrings in a really disadvantaged spot to take over like they would in a chest falling forward squat.

 

I also like allowing the lifter to explore different angles to see where they are strong and where they can improve.  This allows them to be prepared for anything under the barbell.  I do think that training at different angles can help decrease injury risk by increasing each joint’s tolerance of load.

 

High bar squats have roughly 10 degrees more knee flexion.  Training the knee joint through this ROM, greater than the comp lift makes that tissue there stronger and more able to tolerate loads.

 

In the end the variations utilize similar loads and forces, we just tweak the angles a little. Difference between high bar and low bar is 1-2 inches.  We move our feet in and out on the squat a couple of inches each side.

 

Changes in foot position in the deadlift doesn’t change much in the back or hips but puts a little more emphasis on the knee extensors.  That is not a huge difference in the actual movement as the quads are still responsible for breaking the floor in a conventional deadlift in a good position.

 

Three years under Sheiko taught me that the majority of weaknesses within the lift are skill related. I believe that deep down to my core. It is why I focus so heavily on fixing technique.  Technique may never be perfect, but it allows me as a coach to target what I see as weaknesses within the lift.  I then attack these weaknesses.

 

This is what I have done in every sport I have played.  We didn’t just play games to get better.  We broke the games down into smaller parts and worked on our individual and team skills within those contexts.  I don’t think powerlifting is any different.