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.

A Constraints Led Approach to Powerlifting: Knees Caving In

Written by: Kevin Cann


I know in my last article I said I would answer some questions that I posed.  I decided to answer them in a podcast that should be out this week instead.  Instead I am going to show an example of a constraints led coaching approach in the sport of powerlifting.


A constraints led approach is more of a hands-off coaching method, where the coach manipulates constraints to guide the lifter down the appropriate path.  This is a learner centered process.  There are 3 constraints that we deal with:


  1. The Lifter
  2. The Environment
  3. The Task


There aren’t many constraints we can change on the lifter within this sport.  The lifter’s skeletal makeup, genetic makeup, are set in stone. However, there are a few things we can do here.  The lifter’s perceptions and beliefs need to be taken into consideration, but the lifter is a constraint that is difficult to adjust.


The environment is another constraint that is difficult to alter.  However, building a specific training culture at PPS is a priority of mine. Having a fun and hardworking training environment is definitely helpful for success.  This is why I encourage my online lifters to come down in person as often as they can.


Most of the environmental constraints we deal with are out of our control.  The temperatures fluctuate greatly in the gym, the floor may not be even, and people may walk in front of you.  These things may occur at a meet, so they aren’t bad.  I think the only environmental constraint I would worry about is always squatting in the same rack looking at the same thing.


The last constraint we can alter is the actual task.  This is the easiest constraint for the coach to change.  This is where exercise variation comes into play.  You can also alter the equipment used here as well.  I am going to breakdown a specific situation of using this model.


Daniel Lau started with me about 6 months ago.  When he started his best squat was 455lbs and he would get pretty consistent knee pain while squatting.  I adjusted a few things such as head position and foot position and watched him lift for a few weeks.


Daniel’s right knee would cave in consistently when squatting.  Some coaches believe this is a technical flaw and others do not think this is a big deal.  Two each their own here.  I see a position in which we need to improve.  That is how my system works.


We started with what I call 1.5 squats.  Daniel assumes his competition stance, goes down to depth, comes halfway up, back down to depth, and then all of the way up.  This variation slows the lifter down and forces them to spend some extra time where the breakdown is occurring.


From here I sit back and watch.  These weights are lighter due to difficulty, but it is a good start as it builds some volume.  From there we did some high bar wide stance squats.  This variation really exaggerates that technical fault.  It also puts more emphasis on the hips here, which may need some strengthening.


This looked good, but not perfect.  From there we performed high bar wide stance squats with a pause on the halfway up. This slowed him down in a position that really exaggerates that technical fault.  We built this up a bit.


Once we built that variation up, we put the bar lower on the back and kept the wide stance.  With the bar lower and no pause, we can really start loading this up.  Last night he hit 425lbs for 2 sets of 4 reps.  Over this period of time Daniel has added 40lbs to his squat.  He has hit 495lbs multiple times now in training. 425lbs is 85% of that new max for sets of 4.  Now we can turn a weakness into a strength and should be able to squeeze out some more weight on that squat before his competition in April.


There was a 5-week period of time where I removed the competition squat from Daniel’s program all together and the variations I chose were based off of what I saw and my intuition on what I feel will help him.


I treat strength as a skill. When we are developing skills, we need to understand how this development occurs.  Daniel came in with a stable movement pattern of a squat where the right knee would cave in and he would experience pain.  The knee caving in was not why he was experiencing pain for the record.


His perceptions were that squats were leading to pain and this may or may not have been why the knee was caving in.  Part of this approach is understanding he whole person.  You cannot separate the emotions and beliefs from the physical pieces.  Often a collapse of the knees is caused by a lifter sacrificing control for speed.


I needed to find a way to destabilize that squat pattern that he came in with and to guide him to find one in which I determined is more optimal.  The above is the path that I had laid out.  It definitely worked as he has added 40lbs to his squat, with more room, and the knees are staying out under those heavier weights.


Now we will push weights in that position and see where that drives the competition squat.  From there we will analyze his lifts and see where we are at.  After the competition I will put Daniel in a bunch of different positions that allow me to identify strengths and weaknesses and the process will repeat.


After the competition we will drop frequencies a bit.  I was talking a bit about this about 10 months ago.  Everyone that starts the program gets some good success and I think it had to do with the novelty of it.  This has been observed by other coaches as well which just reinforces this idea for me.


We run that lower frequency program for a bit and adjust as needed.  One change I have made over the last 5 months or so is allowing performance to dictate what we do.  Changing frequencies and intensities and volumes are also changing constraints.


If performance continues to increase with a high amount of variation in the program, we will not take it out before a competition.  If a lifter is performing well with lower frequencies, we will ride that wave until it stops working and from there we will assess and make some adjustments.


We will measure fatigue based off of performance and how the lifter is feeling.  If the lifter is feeling psychologically burnt out, or experiencing little nagging pains, we will pull back and throw in a lighter week to recover. We will pick up where we left off as the lifter feels better.



Understanding Plateaus from a Skills Perspective

Written by: Kevin Cann


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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