Attractors, Distractors, and Cognitive Penetrability

Written by Kevin Cann

 

When I have explained a Dynamic Systems Theory (DST), I have mentioned the term attractors.  An attractor in a dynamic system is actually a mathematical model where the system always seems to end up at this numerical point regardless of the initial conditions.

 

When we look at skill acquisition an attractor state is the chosen technique from an athlete under competition requirements.  For example, when the squat gets heavy the lifter pitches forward out of the hole.

 

We could perform a bunch of lighter weight squats that look good, but this often does not change the attractor state as it does not take into account the emotions of the lifter. Emotions come into the lift when it gets heavy.  I think what we often see is when an athlete becomes nervous, they speed things up in their mind and we see a loss of position.

 

Emotions are a distractor to the task at hand and they alter how we perform these tasks.  To further explain, we need to understand how attention works.  Our brain is sifting through a ridiculous amount of information.

 

Think of everything in your visual field when you look somewhere.  If we lacked attention, we would not have spatial awareness and we would not be able to combine light into colors and objects.  It would be impossible for us to perceive the world.

 

Our brain uses attention to focus on specific objects that give our world context.  Our brain predicts what we will see before we even turn our heads to look.  We will focus (attention) on the objects that we expect to see.  These objects will give our world context in spatial and object recognition.

 

Distractors would be anything that pulls our attention away.  Perhaps in the scenario above we hear a loud crash behind us.  This would get us to turn our head quickly as we may be predicting there was an accident.  Imagine if we were attempting to throw a ball at a target.

 

We see the target and everything around it kind of fades out of view.  Then we hear that same crash.  Our attention has gone from the target and the task at hand to seeing if there was an accident.  Or maybe we are driving along, and a person darts out in front of the car and we slam on our breaks.

 

This happens with training. Our system cannot distinguish between our targets and distractors, no matter how involved in a task we are. This allows the system to remain responsive to any unexpected dangers.

 

As a coach we can tell a lifter to slow down and control the squat as much as we want, but it most likely will not work until we alter the task constraints.  The lifter is too open to the signal of the distractors, which pull the lifter into the desired attractor state of a squat with the pitching forward.

 

In order to destabilize this attractor state the lifter needs to learn to deal with the distractors. This is why the individual is a constraint we need to take into consideration.  Their emotions, beliefs, perceptions, and past experiences are all tied to this attractor state.

 

The more a lifter experiences emotional stress while lifting, the less threat that is perceived with that distractor.  This allows greater attention to be given to the actual task.  If the task is unable to be completed with that pitching forward pattern, and only can be completed with an upright torso, we can begin to destabilize the old attractor state into a new one.

 

Get a group cheering you on and we have all 3 constraints; the individual, the environment, and the task covered.  This is basically using multiple differential equations in the real world.  Math is cool, especially complex math.  Just focusing on the mechanical stress is applying a linear regression to these equations and will yield far less results.

 

This is the theory of cognitive penetrability of perception.  Basically, our psychological factors influence our perceptual experiences. We perceive the world, and we perceive movement before it occurs.  This is where I believe the majority of our attention (see what I did there?) should be focused.

 

There is this old dogma, that breakdowns in the lifts are caused by individual weak muscle groups. This believes that the body performs a task as a sum of all of the muscles added together.  I just do not see how this can actually be true.

 

I think this became a dogma because we can measure muscle contraction in the lab.  We cannot measure psychological factors or perception in the same way.  The brain controls the coordination of the muscles.  This is why we can’t just do accessories and the big 3 go up.

 

The argument is that the accessories in combination with the big 3 work.  This may work in some cases by altering expectations.  If the lifter expects it to work, believes it will work, and has done exercises in combination with the big 3 before with success, it can work.  However, I will argue that it works for psychological factors and not mechanical ones.

 

Similar hypertrophy can be seen across a wide range of loads, even as low as 20% of 1RM, as long as we are training at or near maximal.  I do not buy the theoretical argument that a bigger muscle has greater capacity to contract.

 

I believe that a stronger mind gives that muscle a greater ability to contract.  If I train at greater than 85% of 1RM at or near failure, and someone trains at 20% at or near failure, our muscle increases will be similar, but strength will not.  The million-dollar question is “why?”

 

This doesn’t mean that you do some Jedi mind tricks and your total goes up, although it helps.  You train at heavier weights and your perceived efforts change over time because you are pushing them and challenging them. If a lift feels like an RPE 9, but everyone says to go up, and you go up and hit it you are altering your perceived effort.  Your brain needs to update its priors on what an RPE 9 is.

 

I run variations in a pretty linear fashion.  I think each week this helps the perceptions of the lifter.  If I take 400lbs for 5, I know I can take 420lbs for 4, and 435lbs for 3, and so on.  Chances are the lifter was capable of hitting that new 1RM weeks earlier, but their mind was not ready to do it.  It is not like we get to a single with a 20lb PR and that just happened from tapering volume and supercompensation.  It got the mind ready to handle the new weights.

 

We hit these PRs often with much better technique.  My theory is that the emotional stress was no longer a distractor.  That distractor has changed to much higher weights now.  With less fear and less nerves, the lifter is able to put more attention to the task and complete it at a higher level.

 

This can work in the other direction as well.  We know that training is not linear.  What explains a down performance day?  Many will just argue it is mechanical stress leading to it.  Fatigue is a common villain.  This does not make sense to me either.

 

There is no physiological explanation for a drop-in performance.  Studies showing peripheral fatigue days after a hard training session are looking at voluntary muscle contraction.  What controls voluntary muscle contraction?  The brain.

 

How does the brain alter perceived effort?  It analyzes all of these feedback loops and makes a decision.  This includes expectations, beliefs, mood, past experiences, outside stress, sleep, energy, etc.  This can be trained.  The lifter can also be educated and given tasks that violate those expectations and beliefs.  Sometimes they hit PRs when they feel like shit.

 

I am not saying that peripheral fatigue does not exist.  It most certainly does, but more in endurance events than a hard set of squat, bench, or deadlift.  Higher volume programs will most likely come with more measurable peripheral fatigue than high intensity programs.  Another reason why I prefer intensity.  People seem to get more banged up from the higher volumes in my experiences.

 

When we lift heavy in variations that punish inefficient positions, we are getting more bang for our buck. This is deliberate practice versus more practice.  You don’t need 10,000 hours if you train more adequately for competition and it all starts with perceptions.

Advertisements

Do You See a Rabbit or a Duck?

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I was talking with Zak Gabor in the gym yesterday and we were discussing Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”  In one part of the book, Kuhn shows a picture.  What do you see, a rabbit or a duck?

 

IMG_4327

 

Let us say that when you look at it, that you see a rabbit.  I point out that the rabbit’s ears could actually be a duck bill, and that the picture could actually be a duck and not a rabbit.  If now you see the duck, I have just changed your perception of the world without changing the world in which you live in.

 

This is how we actually see the world.  We perceive it a certain way and then we explore it, looking to prove our predicted perceptions correct.  It is not very easy to change someone’s mind on how they perceive the world.

 

This is not necessarily their fault, but actually how our brain’s are wired.  Our brains do not like to be wrong and will try to prove their expectation and beliefs to be correct.  This rabbit or duck scenario is a good analogy for the world of powerlifting.

 

When you start out as a coach or athlete you see a rabbit only.  You view the body as a machine that is defined by its leverages.  You view training as depleting energy stores and your CNS ability to do work.  You might even use fancy words like overreaching, overtraining, and supercompensation.

 

You might argue that daily undulated periodization is superior to linear periodization and structure your training accordingly.  You read about specificity and structure your training with all competition lifts arguing that volume is the driver of results.

 

There is nothing wrong with this.  We all start here, and I think it is a great starting point.  However, we need to keep an open mind and pay attention to outcomes. All of a sudden all of those things stop working.  We blame it on our nutrition, or outside stress.

 

None of these situations takes into account the open complex human system.  We are non-linear dynamic creatures.  Instead the above assumes that we are closed systems where we can predict not only the outcomes, but the timing of outcomes.

 

I believed those pieces to be true, until they weren’t.  In an article titled “Acute Dehydration Impairs Endurance Without Modulating Neuromuscular Function” written by Oliver Barley and colleagues, they show that weight cuts impair strength and endurance in combat sports athletes without altering any physiological components.  It is literally in your head.

 

You can’t use nutrition, or outside stress as excuses because we do not know how they actually effect performance.  Elite athletes seem to be almost immune to mental fatigue.  I knew a few combat sports athletes that talked about using the weight cut as a mental preparation period.  Their hunger was a symbol for their hunger in the cage.  They performed better with a weight cut!

 

When the general principles stopped working, I knew I had to change my perceptions.  I had to learn to see the duck.  What I learned is that perception is everything.  Since I have started embracing the uncertainty of things and structuring a training program around what we know actually works, we have seen much higher levels of success.

 

It is impossible to find optimal volumes, so we threw that out for near max daily sets.  We removed the competition lifts at times and just performed variations of the lifts.  We saw huge improvements from doing this.  We threw out expectations and beliefs about fatigue and we began lifting heavy every single day, only taking a break when our body tells us we need to.

 

This doesn’t mean we are getting hurt.  We see far fewer nagging things now than we did before.  We just may see a down performance day in the gym.  The effort will be the same, but the weight just may be less.  Over time this continued effort leads to some big increases in performance.

 

We are seeing the duck, but the rabbit (general principles) are still there.  We are just applying those principles to the individual instead of generally.  This changes the game quite a bit.  In fact, it makes it look so different that people get angry about it on the internet.

 

Those people do not want to see the duck.  They only see the rabbit, and the rabbit is like a stuffed animal that they have held every night to keep out the bogeyman.  They clutch it so tight so that it brings them comfort.  Just like a child that needs to move on from the stuffed animal, so do these people, or they will never progress.

 

I think this picture tells even more of the story of strength sports.  Perception is everything.  I run a Dynamic Systems Theory/Constraints-Led Approach with PPS. This framework accepts the non-linearity of things and guides the coach to make decisions based off of the individual’s emotions, beliefs, perceptions, and biomechanics as well as the environment’s affects (the team atmosphere), and the actual task.

 

I structure the tasks so that inefficient techniques are punished, and only more efficient solutions are allowed.  However, breakdowns in technique may be nothing more than our perceptions working against us.

 

If we think a weight will be hard and heavy and we are nervous, we tend to speed up the actions in our brain.  When we speed up the actions we see pitching forward in the squat, pushing the bar towards the hips on the bench press, and hips rising on the deadlift.

 

If the coach gets the lifter to slow it down a bit in their head, we often see the lifter lift the same, and sometimes more, weight efficiently.  It is not a weak muscle group, or your biomechanics leading to inefficiency.  It is the lack of confidence in your head. This is not all conscious, there are subconscious pieces to this.

 

We pause a lot on the halfway up or do very long concentric tempos, or pin squats even and we see improvements.  These improvements are gradually altering our perceptual-motor landscape.  We perceive a movement, predict a motor strategy, get feedback from the movement, and update our predictions.  This is what basically happens, but over a period of time.  The brain does not like to be disproven, but it will slowly compromise.  There are also many levels to this.

 

When we alter the task, we are not just altering the perception of the actual movement.  We are increasing perceived effort.  Putting your feet out a couple of inches and the bar an inch higher on your back, does not alter mechanics enough to explain a drop-in performance.

 

Your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and back are still lifting the weight.  Many lifters prefer a wider stance in the squat.  Bryce Lewis and John Haack squat with a high bar position with high success.  Some lifters bench more with a closer grip than a wider one.

 

We like to sound smart by talking moment arms and leverages, but if we believe this to be true, we are blind to what we see as a whole.  If we use a reductionist view of biomechanics, we lose the mind and the mind is running this show.

 

It may be as simple as altering these tasks raises perceived effort.  We run these “harder” variations for a period of time.  We get the competition lift back and we now perceive similar efforts at much higher weights with a more comfortable position. We gain confidence and have the support of a team and we ride that wave to a large PR.

 

When we run variations, we can see them be very difficult at first.  However, over time we see improvements.  Large improvements over a few weeks.  This just may be the lifter’s brain adapting to the perceived effort of the exercise.  The lifter begins to feel a bit more comfortable with it, the brain is being trained, and the exercise becomes easier.  Often, lifters hit their previous 1RM in a variation or even an all-time PR.

 

Kerry hit 300lbs off pins (8lb PR), Alyssa hit 345lbs high bar wide stance tempo (20lb PR), Doug hit his previous best off pins with high bar, Allie hit a 5lb PR off pins, Vin hasn’t touched heavier weights at all just really long tempo and took 5kg less than his opener for a 5 reps.  Tempo alters perceived effort.  Keep that high and when the lifter can be comfortable, we see improvements.

 

Training perceived effort is a way of training the brain.  I often tell lifters to go up when it feels heavy and so does the group. This is when the weight feels heavy to the lifter, but physiological function is not changed.  Strength is there.  In fact, physiological reasons do not explain down performance days. However, mental fatigue can explain it. This doesn’t mean we can just talk ourselves into it.  The brain is in charge.  We can trick it and train it, but ultimately it will make a decision to consciously stop.

 

This story to be continued.

From Sheiko to Where We Are Now

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

This article is going to go with a solo podcast I just recorded.  I discussed how I started and how we ended up doing things the way that we do them now.  This is going to be a quick addition as I believe that people think we do so many things different than we did before.

 

When we were mimicking a Sheiko program before we were using a specific number of lifts and average intensity based off of lifter classification.  We used percentages for these numbers.  Technique was the primary driver of exercise selection and those other factors.

 

We would squat 2 times per week, deadlift 2 times per week, and bench 3-4 times per week.  There would be high, medium, and low stress training days sprinkled throughout the block.  We would even do the dreaded double lift days.

 

Currently, I do not write sets, just exercise and suggested top weight.  There are no percentages and the top sets are just a range of RPEs from 8.5 to 9.5.  The frequencies of lifts shift around as well.  The rest of the information is lifter dependent.

 

The lifter chooses the number of sets based off of how the day is going and how they feel they need to warmup.  They have rules governing the top sets.  They are to get 1-2 at RPE 8.5-9.5.  I give a suggested weight, but they can adjust accordingly.  Sometimes it does not work well at first, but then they drop the weight and work back up and hit it.  Sometimes they don’t work back up.

 

If they do not work back up, that is a lighter or medium stress day.  They still have those; they just self-organize into them.  We get so hellbent on general principles being true that we think we can predict when the lifter will need a break and we think we can predict performance.  None of this is true.

 

The human body is pretty amazing.  There are all kinds of feedback loops that can dictate this process if we just listen. If fatigue is going to affect performance, we will see it by the top set being less than we anticipated.  Sometimes the lifter feels tired and still exceeds that number.

 

We need to embrace uncertainty and understand that we are not smarter than the human body.  I will vary frequencies based off of performance for the lifters.  Sometimes 3 days a week where we squat twice, bench 2-3 times, and deadlift once is better. Sometimes we need more.  It often will look exactly like it used to with 4 days per week.  Squats and deadlifts twice and bench 3-4 times.

 

We still use double lift days as I see appropriate.  I still use variations to attack the technical inefficiencies.  These variations make up the majority of the volume just like they did before.  I vary more now, where before everything was in comp stance or grip.  Now I move the lifters around in a bunch of different positions.

 

Instead of getting lots of sets for practice, I choose to have a more targeted approach where our practice will be more specific.  We will get the 1-2 sets at a very challenging weight.  Effort at the end might be the same, I just choose to use a heavier weight as I feel it is a different skill and has an emotional response from the lifter.

 

This is a constraints-led approach.  We get more deliberate practice, so we don’t need as much.  There was the old 10,000-hour rule that was believed to be true, but research suggests that it comes down more to the quality of training than the quantity.  How much each person needs are dependent on that person.  Everyone learns at a different rate.

 

Everyone has different stuff going on outside of the gym.  We do not know how this stuff can affect performance, but sometimes it may be best to just do 3 days as trying to get that 4thday in just becomes a stressor to them.  Sometimes performance stalls and we got to suck it up and get that 4thday in.

 

There are no answers. As a coach I feel we need to guide the process with the general principles in the back of our minds.  I learned the general principles from Sheiko, and you can still see how heavily our programs are influenced by him.  I choose to use 1 to 2 hard sets for the number of lifts and average intensity now, but technique is still first.  The structure changes throughout as I see fit, but much of it is still influenced from the structure I used under him.  It may seem very different, but it is not so different at all.

My First Theory: Mechanical Stress and Perception

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I started this coaching thing by mimicking my coach.  I was fortunate enough to have one of the greatest coaches in this sport at the time and for 3 years.  Over time my network grew, and my learning expanded.

 

My network includes other powerlifting coaches as well as physical therapists.  I am lucky enough to call these people my friends at this point. We have had many interesting conversations that have made me think and challenged me in many ways.

 

I have read extensively about dynamic systems and made many changes to the ways in which I do things. I think I am ready to finally talk about my first theory in regard to powerlifting.  This theory concerns mechanical stress.

 

Mechanical stress is what makes up the majority of the focus in powerlifting.  This stems from Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome.  We overload a lifter with volume, we deload, and we supercompensate and come back stronger.

 

A typical example in programming is 3 weeks of increases in volume, followed by a deload, and then starting it all over again.  Daily undulated periodization is a commonly used periodization model that alters volumes and intensities in a bit of a different structure.

 

I have focused quite a bit on the mechanical stress in the past.  I tracked total tonnage, number of lifts, average intensities, and even more breakdowns of those numbers.  This assumes that the principle of overload is correct.

 

If the overload principle was correct wouldn’t we be able to predict and reproduce results?  This just is not true.  Sometimes liters hit PRs in the middle of a block when volume is high and then those numbers aren’t there on the platform when we taper down dropping fatigue and compete.  Shouldn’t that lifter be supercompensated?

 

That same lifter may have performed well under those exact same guidelines previously.  Training is completely unpredictable.  In fact, it would be chaotic.  To understand a chaotic system we need to view it from a macroscopic lens and attempt to find trends with these irregularities.  This is no easy task and to be honest the math might just be way too complex to actually figure out.

 

When we encounter a complex system, we can make many large mistakes in trying to tame it.  We tend to like to focus on mechanical stress because it is easy to see and easy to track.  It can give us a lot of data points and make us feel like we have a lot of answers.

 

These answers will most certainly work.  It may even work most of the time.  My question is, what happens when it doesn’t?  Do you continue to do the same thing until it does?  Do you chalk it up to nutrition or outside stress or sleep?  Even those have poor correlations to predicting performance.

 

We know all of these things, including mechanical stress, matters in strength training.  How much do they matter and how we monitor these aspects is above our paygrades.  My guess is this math is so complex that to make it work it may need imaginary numbers and exist in the complex plane, a plane that we can’t even see.

 

RPEs get closer to understanding this.  The RPE is a simple number that takes into consideration the human element of the lifter. Their perceptions of how hard the weight is and how hard the training is, is monitored.

 

As coaches we take these numbers and instead use them to dictate intensity of training.  Instead of putting a percentage on the sheet we may use RPEs or both.  I am not just here shitting on other coaches, I do this as well.

 

I am actually taking a step back from this as I test my theory on mechanical stress.  I have kind of been testing it the last few months in person by dictating training outside of what is on their program.  However, here is my theory:

 

Mechanical stress only matters as much as the lifter perceives it to

 

I have reread Kiely’s articles every day for the last few weeks.  This has literally been a problem that I have been attempting to solve since I started coaching.  The irregularities in training volumes and intensities and how they relate to performance has been eating me up for years.

 

You can go back in time and see my frustrations with this in older articles.  The lifter in front of you is one human.  You cannot separate the body from the mind.  We know perceptions are important for motor control, pain, and strength.

 

Modern stress research has taken us from Selye and showed us the importance of emotions, cognitions, and perceptions to all of these aspects.  Those values differ for each person in front of you and they differ for that person on a day to day basis.

 

If I truly want to find trends in irregularities for each individual, I need to fully embrace self-organization. I only have embraced that with technique.  I was writing out all of the lifters’ warmups and volumes daily.  I can’t find these trends if I don’t allow the lifters to see what works best for them.

 

I am making a major change in how I deliver the programs.  We have rules in regard to navigating training.  One of the biggest rules is effective communication between the 2 of us.  Typically we take 1-2 hard sets per day, per lift.  These hard sets should rate between RPE 8.5-9.5.  I believe effective sets are more important than any other measurement for mechanical stress.

 

The lifter has the option to not take hard sets if they don’t feel like it.  This is where communication is key.  They also have the option to take more if they feel they can. This goes against the norm in many cases because of the concerns with fatigue.  I am not sure those concerns are warranted and even if they are it is impossible to measure.  If it is there, we take it.  If it isn’t, we don’t.

 

I am no longer using fancy Excel spreadsheets to build out training.  Instead I will give a range of hard-set weights that I feel the lifter should shoot for.  Again, if they don’t feel great training, they can decrease that weight and if they feel good, they can go up.  I will also write the total number of sets and reps without recommended weights.  I am planning on even giving some more flexibility here as well.

 

I will let the lifter select what they feel is appropriate.  At the end of the training session they will rate how hard the session was.  From that information we will build out the following week.  My goal is to help each lifter self-organize into frequencies, volumes, and intensities that work best for them at that current time in their training.  Remember this is always changing.

 

I feel my job as a coach is just to help guide the ship.  I believe self-efficacy is important for strength development.  The current research supports this theory. It is difficult as a coach to give up so much control to the lifter.

 

Many may think that over time the lifters will not need me anymore.  I could not disagree more.  My intuition is based off of a data set of everything I see and everything I know. It is much more advanced than an Excel spreadsheet.

 

I also feel what I am doing with self-organization requires a higher skill level from the coach.  It requires an analysis of irregular trends that are difficult to understand.  It requires me choosing the right task for the learner and setting up training in an effective way to ensure that person is self-organizing into the best situation for that lifter.

 

This requires knowing more about the lifters than just their 1RMs and previous training.  This is just a quick overview.  Perhaps in the next article I will go into greater scientific detail why I feel my theory is less wrong.

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.