“Evidence Based” is the New “Functional Fitness”: IDGAF About Your Science

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I will admit that that title is quite a bit of clickbait.  I just did not know what to title it and wanted to get started.  To be honest, I read a lot of the research.  However, I am selective on what I read.

 

I really do not give a shit about EMG studies.  I had a discussion on IG, with someone that was referencing studies showing that the quads and adductors are the main movers out of the hole in the squat.

 

My post was in regard to pitching forward in the squat when the lifter comes out of the hole.  It is easy to look at that EMG study and chalk it up to weak quads and/or adductors.  However, this is not the case in the real world.

 

When I started lifting, I was coached by Boris Sheiko.  I had this technical error.  Sheiko told me this was due to weak hamstrings and glutes.  I got lots of good mornings and hyperextensions to build up the hamstrings and hips.  My squat went up 200lbs over the next 3 years.  I was a beginner so maybe this is just beginner gains, right?

 

I definitely did not have weak quads.  I played soccer through college, a very quad dominant sport, followed by over 10 years of mma, again very quad heavy sport.  In spite of all of this, I was too smart for my own good.

 

I read those studies and began to really hammer the quads for those pitching forward in the squat. Improvements occurred, but it wasn’t as great as I expected.  I started shifting my focus to more skill acquisition research.  This is research I actually care about.

 

I decided to treat the pitching forward as a skill issue and utilize positions that disallow it.  I also decided to utilize a position that would target the hamstrings and hips more.  This would help give me some answers in the real world to what muscles are being used.  I was confused with the contradictory information out there.

 

We utilized wide stance squats here, which are less quads and more hips, and it punishes a pitching technical fault as the lifter will not stand up if they pitch.  We would do this only for a period of time and then bring the feet back in.  Big surprise, the pitching improved immensely, and the squats went through the roof.

 

This goes against those EMG studies but supports what Sheiko and what Louie Simmons say about the role of the hamstrings and glutes in the squats.  In fact, those studies showed almost no hamstring activity in the squats at all, leading to the conclusion that the hamstrings do not play a major role.

 

The 2 coaches I mentioned above have over 80 years of coaching world record holders and world champions.  Do we just disregard what they say because of some EMG study?  I did that once and will not do that again.

 

In my post I was explaining a typical cause of pitching forward.  Many lifters will drive the knees forward hard to initiate the squat.  This loads the weight onto the quads.  In fact, on my post, my lifter was doing box squats for a max effort exercise.  She sat back well to initiate the squat, but halfway down she drove the knees forward hard.

 

This is a sign of weak hips, not weak quads.  On this set, she had a little bit of pitching off of the box.  If she had driven the knees forward hard from the start the pitching would be worse.  Just like a deadlift, we need to load the hips, hamstrings, and back before the concentric.

 

If we do not do that for a deadlift, the lifter will pitch forward.  Why would the squat be different?  When my lifter pitched forward off of the box, the quads actually get it moving, and I believe the hips can’t handle the transfer of force.  It is no surprise that these technical faults are shared between the squat and the deadlift.

 

I have read somewhere that perhaps on the way up, the glutes and hamstrings actually pull the hips down to counter the quads and give the erectors more leverage.  This makes sense logically.  Whether it is true or not I am not sure.  What I witness in the gym seems to support that theory.

 

When we watch untrained lifters squat, they tend to drive the knees forward hard to initiate the lift.  This is exactly what I am talking about.  This EMG reading would make sense to be lots of quads and adductors in the bottom, and little to no hamstrings.  Does this mean this study is the way to lift massive weights?

 

No, this study is showing what muscles are used by untrained lifters.  Even the studies on trained lifters seem to be a little off.  In a study I read the other day, the trained lifters average 1RM on the squat was 165kg.  A weight that is below the squat of a 150lb female on PPS.

 

In Russia, they actually perform studies on their high level lifters.  This is why I am so quick to take the word of Sheiko with these things.  He actually performs a lot of these studies.  They take a biomechanical analysis at Russian Nationals every year as well.

 

I think many lifters here forget about the role of the lats in the bench press.  Most will argue they do not play a major role.  This is why the bar path is always said to come back towards the face, to give the pecs and delts more leverage.

 

There are 17 different bar paths that Sheiko saw at Russian Nationals.  Only 4 have ever produced world champions.  In 2015, a study on Russian lifters looked at the lats role.  All 4 had strong lat activation on the press.  Lats shut off for the last.5 seconds to allow the delts to finish the lift.

 

There are certain things that lifters can get away with under lighter weights.  The heavier the weights get, the less they will get away with.  Instead of looking at what untrained or weaker lifters are lifting I would rather listen to the lifters that lift the largest absolute loads as well as the coaches that have coached lifters at the highest levels.

 

This does not mean that science is useless.  I am big on the skill acquisition research.  One study I mentioned above was about movement variability within the lifts.  I love that stuff.  I am also not advocating for everyone’s lifts to look the same.

 

Forward knee travel is going to be dependent on strengths of the lifter, their build, and stance width, and even choice of footwear.  However, I choose to have the moment arm of the hips be greater than that of the knees during the squat.  This puts more emphasis on the hips.  This seems to be the best way to lift massive weights, and to keep progress moving up.

 

I know raw lifters are quick to shit on multiply lifters.  I used to do the same thing.  However, these guys and girls lift the highest absolute loads possible.  I understand that technique is dictated by the gear, but there are some things to pay attention to.  Also, the squat suit you need to sit back into to get the most out of it.  This is basically like having super glutes.  Maybe getting your hips strong as fuck is what the answer is here.  This is an assumption based off of my confirmation bias though so take it for what it is worth.

 

As a coach, my job is to teach the technique that I feel the older lifters and coaches have figured out.  This is why I appreciate the skill acquisition literature.  It guides me on the best way to teach each lifter.

 

This is where I blend science with experiences of those that came before us.  I have also had quite a bit of experience at this point as well.  Enough time to mess with things and see what works.  I will keep reading the literature on dynamic skill acquisition, and I will continue to disregard EMG studies done on untrained to intermediate lifters without seeing their technique.

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?

 

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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.

Task Constraints in Powerlifting: Where Variation Meets Specificity

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

In the 1960s, a Russian scientist named Bernstein warned against splitting up the neurophysiology and biomechanical aspects of movement.  He explained that each does not exist without the other.

 

Fast forward to modern day and almost all of our research is either or.  The majority of the research that I see is some EMG analysis of lifts looking at what muscles are involved at given times throughout the range of motion.

 

Not that this research isn’t useful, it is, but it is a very small piece of a much larger picture.  I saw a study performed on 12 powerlifters using the Safety Squat Bar.  The EMG analysis showed it had greater activation of the upper back muscles, but lower activation of some of the leg muscles as well as the abs.

 

I do not like this bar in training at all.  The fact that the EMG showed this, as well as a 11% decrease in loads used (probably why the muscle activation was less than a straight bar), I thought it defended my stance.  It does somewhat, but not the whole story.

 

As a coach sometimes you see things that you just know aren’t right.  It might even just be a gut feeling.  Trying to understand these gut feelings is how we learn.  I knew that the safety squat bar was not giving me the desired effects like other variations.

 

I see a study like the one presented, and it immediately makes sense.  However, when I jump to that conclusion, I fall into the same trap that Bernstein warned of.  We are not just a bag of muscles.  We are far more complex than that.

 

The more I learn about motor control, the more I learn that Bernstein was right.  Lifting with a Safety Squat Bar is a completely different skill, and for this reason I do not like it in my programming.

 

I would have liked to have known how familiar the lifters in that study were with the SSB.  Perhaps the decrease in weight used was just due to their lack of familiarity with it.  This is not a reason I feel this bar should be used, but the exact opposite. Perhaps with better skill, the muscle activation would have been different.  In my experiences most people squat less with the SSB, but who knows.

 

If these are experienced powerlifters shouldn’t they be able to do a similar movement as their sport asks them too?  If these lifters aren’t familiar with it and it requires them to use less weight to figure out, then how much carryover would there be the other way?

 

Another recent study had showed that 1RMs were very similar for the same lifter regardless of foot stance width.  This tells me that close stance and wide stance squats each builds the competition squat because the absolute loads are similar.  The movement is similar enough to have carryover.

 

Now, some people claim that the SSB had benefits for them and I have seen lifters that struggled with changing their foot position in the squat.  However, these are most definitely outliers in my experiences.

 

If anything this is an example of the principle of individual differences.  Everyone learns a little bit differently and we are learning a skill at the end of the day.  I feel that the skill of the SSB does not carry over to the skill of the competition squat as much as other options.

 

It is a different movement. The weight feels differently on your back, it sits in a very different spot, and your arms are held by your sides. I also feel the same way about front squats.  The weight sits differently, and the movement feels very different.

 

With high bar squats and moving the feet around we are using the same equipment that we compete with. We are just tweaking the movement in a very slight way to achieve a desired effect from the lifter.

 

Playing soccer if I had used a smaller or larger ball in training it would have altered my mechanics to adjust to the difference.  This would not have necessarily been a good thing to do in practice.  The specialty bars are similar to this in my opinion.

 

A high bar squat keeps everything the same as the competition squat.  The only difference is the bar is a couple of inches higher on their back. This increases the thoracic extension demands and forces the lifter to stay a bit more upright.  You also will not get away with as much pitching forward out of the hole.  However, at the end of the day it feels very similar to the competition movement.

 

Using a straight bar here has much more carryover in my opinion than using the SSB.  This is why the eye of the coach is important.  The coach needs to be able to watch the lifter and devise a plan in the gym to put them in positions so that they learn how to squat for optimal performance.

 

The use of variations with the intent of teaching the athlete a skill is known as task constraints. We are more often than not putting the lifter in a position that punishes bad technique.  In powerlifting we are limited to what constraints we can change.  This has opened the door for specialty bars and other devices to be sold.

 

We need to make sure the task constraints that we put in training have the desired effect and carryover that we are looking for.  All too often when someone has a technical issue in the lift there is a standard answer that is found on the internet.

 

This may work for you and it may not.  I have been fucking around with variations to improve technique ever since I started training powerlifters.  I am only now beginning to develop a strong grasp of how to alter the tasks in the gym for the desired effects.

 

Some things that we can alter are the equipment.  I think there may be some benefits to training without a belt and sleeves.  I think many people have this unsubstantiated belief that their equipment helps them lift more weight.  The belt helps, but probably not as much as you think. The knee sleeves don’t give you anything, no matter how tight they get.

 

Switching to flats may put a higher emphasis on the quads in the literature.  Maybe this has some carryover, but why not just high bar squat in your competition shoes?  I always wore my equipment in practice for other sports.

 

The other way we can alter equipment is with specialty bars.  Like I stated before I don’t believe using these leads to transferable skills to the competition lift.  The skill to utilize them is very different.

 

Load matters.  What I have realized over time is that in order for carryover to be seen in the competition lift the weight lifted matters. Just practicing good technique with light weights does not just transition to having the same technique under heavier weights.

 

We need to keep this in mind when we are utilizing variations.  This is why I like altering foot position.  Most people can lift somewhere in the same ballpark as they can with a comp stance.  Most people can also handle weights around 80% for reps with high bar squats and the combo of high bar squats and changing foot position.

 

If the loads lifted are too light for carryover, we need to make adjustments to the other days, or decide if it is even worth it to keep in the program.  The skill level of the lifter and the training age is a big part of this. A beginner I do not mind lifting light weights with opposite stance deadlifts for a while, but someone more elite this may yield a loss in strength that is not worth it.

 

During this time period we can alter angles of the squat to more mimic the competition deadlift and we can push squat intensity a bit since similar muscles are utilized.  You see, biomechanics matters, but it is not the only thing.

 

We need to balance the biomechanics with the neurophysiological (which includes psychological) into a coherent path where the outcome is the best total possible. This also means adapting the program on a day to day basis.

 

The weight used also changes the environment.  This is why we see breakdowns in technique at heavier weights.  This is also why the task constraints we put in training need to be performed under heavier loads.

 

This does not mean that the lifter needs to be handle heavier loads right away with these variations. We need to practice them a bit and prepare for the heavier weights.  Standard linear periodization can work very well here.

 

We also need adequate amounts of volume.  The general strength principles still apply to all of this.  We need a certain baseline level of volume to get stronger.  At the appropriate times we need to stress this baseline a bit.

 

I tend to do this more on a daily basis than a weekly one.  There will be high stress days, medium, and low stress days.  I tend to stress intensity with the same number of lifts in the off season and as a meet draws near we increase total volume and the amount of competition lifts performed increases.  You can’t just drive volumes year-round.

 

The offseason is a good time to add variation and allow the athlete to self-organize technique.  It is also a good time to destabilize previous movement patterns that the coach may deem inefficient.

 

During this time we can alter the constraints of training to overload efficiency and increase learning. Some variations are harder than others. Also, some variations create a response, but need to be adjusted to each individual lifter to cater to their individual learning experience.

 

This might mean having a pause on the halfway up in a high bar wide stance squat.  We could drive high bar wide stance squats through a block to try to improve pitching and knees caving in.  It may improve some, but the coach may see room for more improvement.

 

We don’t just ditch the exercise, but we adjust it and watch what happens.  I used to interject more than I do now.  I give feedback and cues to remind the lifter what to focus on.  I also adjust the weight on the bar.  I do not want training to be too light or too heavy.

 

I also need to take into consideration lifter confidence when picking weights.  Often, I will see a lifter registering high RPEs for sets that look very easy.  This tells me that we need to alter the environment to work on confidence.  This doesn’t come from turning on the Rocky soundtrack.

 

When I see this, I will put the lifter in uncomfortable situations with heavier weights and we will build confidence this way.  This is delicate as missed repetitions can further decrease the lifter’s confidence. Usually their belief in me as their coach and having side spots and the support of the team can help alter these perceptions and increase confidence.

 

In these situations it is not weak muscles leading to technical breakdowns in the lift, but the lack of confidence.  You cannot separate the neurophysiological and the biomechanical as they exist together. One thing all elite athletes have in common is their confidence and belief in themselves.

 

The job of the coach is to guide this process taking all of these aspects into consideration.  From there we need to put the lifters in the correct environment to elicit the wanted changes in technique.

 

It is also the job of the coach to watch and make the necessary adjustments on a day to day basis. This is not a plug and play scenario where you see something wrong occur and there is a one size fits all approach to fixing it.

 

It also takes time. Let the lifter play around a bit and see how it improves over the span of a few weeks.  From here reassess and start the process over.

 

 

Where I May Disagree with Sheiko on Technique

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I have written quite a bit about the importance of technique recently and in the past.  My knowledge of skill acquisition has grown over the last few years and as I learn more, I realize I may have been incorrect in my understandings and how I was implementing it.

 

I have talked a lot about building a stable motor pattern.  My understanding in my time with Sheiko was that we want every repetition to look the same.  If we are performing 5 sets of 3 repetitions at 80% of 1RM they should all look similar.

 

If each repetition looked different then we would be training 15 different movement patterns, and this would lead to an unstable movement pattern that would breakdown easily under heavier loads.

 

I took this as a way to determine training loads and volumes.  However, I don’t believe this was the right way to be doing things. After reading Sheiko’s book, I also believe that I misunderstood some of these aspects and how he interprets them.

 

I was interpreting the movement variability in lifts as errors.  In my eyes this was a negative thing.  This is where I was making my biggest mistake and why I think some progress for lifters stalled.

 

It should not have been viewed as an error.  This was in fact the lifter learning.  Research has shown that before skill acquisition is obtained there is a high variability of movement.  Our brain is constantly perceiving and predicting sensory outcomes to preplan motor strategies.

 

As we lift the brain is determining which strategies work best based off of past experiences and these perceptions and beliefs.  This happens at both the conscious and unconscious levels.  In fact, in the beginning more of the movement is being performed at the conscious level.

 

When the conscious control is taking over, different parts of the central nervous system are driving the ship.  This leads to greater movement error.  What we need to do is we need to create changes in the subconscious movement systems. The subconscious is what allows us to self-organize.

 

It is our job as coaches to guide them from the conscious to the subconscious to allow them to self-organize into the patterns that we feel are optimal for them.  All obtained movement patterns are temporary.  This is why it is a lifelong journey of achieving perfect technique.

 

We move from stable movement pattern to stable movement pattern.  If someone has been lifting for a while and they pitch forward in the squat, this I currently their stable movement pattern.

 

In this case we need to destabilize the movement patterns from the past before we can acquire a new one. This is why I will remove competition lifts from someone’s program for a period of time.  The strongest influence upon someone’s movement is past experiences. The longer someone goes without this pattern the more destabilized it becomes.

 

We then need to create an environment that forces the lifter to self-organize in better positions.  We do not always need to take the competition lifts out of the program to achieve this.  This is where we can identify where breakdowns are happening and use lighter weights to build tonnage.  However, far out from a meet, I tend to find it is easier if we remove it for a 4-8 week period of time.

 

This is what I believe Sheiko actually was doing with my programs.  The variations being used were there to create those subconscious changes in system dynamics, comp lifts were performed at loads with good techniques, and the number of lifts and average intensities were adjusted in ways to make sure the lifter would still get stronger because strength principles still apply.

 

This was hard to see at the time with a very minimal understanding of motor control theories. I also was probably underloading my lifters based off of the errors that I saw in training.  I identified this once I added in monitoring tools such as the ACWR and LSRPEs.

 

I make sure we hit the appropriate numbers for loads and average relative intensities as well as LSRPEs at least a 7.  I don’t structure the lock in a way where I look for perfect technique on every repetition anymore.

 

I analyze the lifter’s videos and training and make a plan based off of that.  I give the lifter feedback for what I am looking for on the lifts and sit back and watch.  I will give them some feedback after sets and I want to see what they figure out as the block goes along.

 

At the end of the block I see where we are at.  Oftentimes the variation will help a little bit, but there is still unwanted breakdown. From here I decide if I want to keep running it as is or tweak the variation in a way that may be more appropriate for that individual to learn.

 

We all learn differently and at different rates.  It is naïve to think that each variation will work the same for everyone.  It absolutely will not.   The coach needs to understand that learning is not linear.  There are many aspects that come together to form a learned behavior.

 

For example, I like to use box squats to teach control in the squat.  This helps many lifters maintain position out of the hole. However, for some we may still see some loss of control such as pitching or knees caving in.  I will have them then touch the box and pause 2 inches above it. This forces them to change it up a bit. It allows them to control more of the positions of the lift.

 

There will also be progressions and regressions in this learned behavior over time as well.  The coach needs to look at the totality of the training block and determine how best to alter the training environment to elicit the outcomes in which they are looking for.

 

The coach needs to identify whether the movement errors in training are positive towards the learning experience or not working.  I explain this to my lifters as conscious effort.  I want to see them attempt to do what I am asking.  I want to see what that conscious effort brings about over a few weeks.  From there we adjust.

 

If the lifter is just losing control in the lift, then we need to change up some things.  We either need to lower the weight or change the exercise. When we lower the weight, we need to be sure our efforts and loads are still appropriate for that lifter to get stronger.

 

If our opposite stance deadlift is 15% weaker than the competition stance, we need to be sure we are getting overloaded weights somewhere else.  If someone pulls conventional and their sumo deadlift is weaker by a lot there may be some really heavy snatch grip deadlifts, or other variation to really hit the back.  The squat volume can help here too.

 

I actually want to see some breakdowns in the lifts in training.  This allows me to identify areas of the lifts that need to be addressed. I am much more ok with errors occurring in training now than I used to be.  I used to view them as a negative, but in fact they may be a positive sign of the lifter learning.

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.