The Importance of Skill Acquisition in Powerlifting

Written by Kevin Cann


USAPL Northeast Regionals just wrapped up this past weekend.  We had 18 lifters compete.  This meet was run very well with some very strict judging.  I loved this.  This was a great opportunity for some of the newer lifters to get a taste of what it is like to be on a bigger stage.


It was also a good opportunity for those that have never competed at Nationals, but will be, to get a feel for what it will be like.  This Regional meet has come a long way in just a few short years.  I am going to encourage my lifters to do it every year.


We did very well.  We had 2 open winners and 6 total top 5 finishes. We hit a lot of PRS in spite of missing quite a few lifts.  I was far more aggressive with my attempt selection than I was in the past.  Big events are for big weights and big opportunities.


A few of the lifters had HUGE days.  Jess Ward won the 72kg weight class and finished 5thoverall with 703 IPF points (and she missed a lift).  Kerry won her weight class, but there are some things we need to work on.  Good to know on a bad day she can still hit her best ever total which was good for 10that Nationals, just wait for a good day.


Alyssa competed the weekend before.  In the past Alyssa has always fizzled by the time deadlifts rolled around.  The weekend before she hit a 20kg total PR. She missed her 3rdsquat and 3rdbench at Regionals.  She was definitely tired by this point.  She then went out and hit a lifetime deadlift PR on her 3rd. That is a competition skill PR right there and very important to see.


Kelly is still a newer lifter.  She has done a few local meets and has been able to get away with a few things.  When we saw the judging assignments for Regionals, we knew we had to tighten up a few things.  Her squat on that platform would not get whites where it has gotten whites in the past.  She had to put it a bit lower.


Each week we handled singles and just practiced putting them deeper.  Kelly then went out onto the platform and put a weight on her back that she hadn’t touched since March, and when she did it would not have been a passing squat at this competition.  She put it right where she needed to and hit a good strong 3rdattempt. She went 9/9 and had a big total PR on a very tough stage.


Daniel is another one I want to highlight.  Daniel missed all of his singles leading up to the competition.  He had a very tough training block.  Daniel saw a decline in his sumo deadlift performance, but we were able to switch to conventional to hit an all-time PR.  However, all other things just seemed to be trending in the wrong direction leading to the meet.


We had a good talk and Daniel is not scared to miss.  This is why missing reps is important.  It is a skill to learn to miss reps.  You learn how to handle them.  Daniel ended up going 9/9 and hitting PRs on all 3 of his lifts.  He turned what seemed like a down training block into one really good day on the platform.


These were not the only ones that did well, but ones I wanted to highlight for the purpose of this article.  They all showed a high level of skill within the sport.  These were numbers they have hit under all circumstances; this strength is stable.


By all circumstances I am referring to, different foot placements, grips, and stances, as well as under high levels of pressure.  The ones that saw previous bests end up as missed lifts all had something in common, they couldn’t do that.


Strength, as well as skill, are non-linear processes.  There will be progressions, but also regressions at times.  When one skill regresses there needs to be another skill that comes up and takes its place.


We need to develop a strong skillset so that the lifter can solve all problems within the lifts.  For example, Mike D missed his 3rddeadlift at his knees.  Mike pulls sumo and has a best ever gym pull of 670lbs.  Mike can’t pull 600 conventional.  If Mike had a similar conventional pull as his sumo deadlift, he would have the skillset, or strength at those angles, to overcome a slow -moving sumo deadlift off of the floor and to be able to lock it out.  The angles between this deadlift and the conventional deadlift are very similar.


Daniel showed that when his sumo deadlift went backwards, he was able to switch to conventional to hit a PR. Sarah was another PPS lifter that had a monster day.  She went 9/9 with a 22.5kg total PR and qualified for Raw Nationals.


All of the increases in total came from the squat and deadlift.  Sarah was hitting between 285-300lbs on her squat at all angles, with pauses, and on days she didn’t feel great.  She hit 281lbs in April, but 308lbs at Regionals.  Sarah going into her April meet struggled to pull 300lbs sumo but pulled 330lbs conventional.  This is about a 10% difference.


We hammered her sumo deadlift until she was able to pull 330lbs plus.  330lbs was her second and moved like an opener.  She ended up hitting 353lbs for an all-time PR and a bid to Nationals.


I am not saying that if a lifter has a huge difference between lifts that they can’t succeed on the platform.  They most certainly can, but from what I am seeing those probabilities decrease.  Mike D had similar numbers under these conditions with squat and bench and those remained stable for the platform.  250kg on the 3rdsquat moved better than it has in the past even.


This is not an all or nothing thing either.  Lifters with big differences at different angles may be better or worse at handling platform pressure.  There are a number of things that can explain these differences and play a role in performance.


Every weakness will come to the surface at some point.  To quote a video I saw “Momentum is a cruel mistress, always searching for that one thing that you have not prepared for.”  Time for us to take what we learned and begin to prepare for Raw Nationals.

Giving Thanks to the Sport of Powerlifting

Written by: Kevin Cann


Since it is the day before Thanksgiving, I figured I would write about this topic.  I do have some other things I wanted to write about, but timing is everything.


Powerlifting was the first sport I have ever done that I wasn’t very good at it.  I have always been athletic.  I was always quick, strong for my sport, my reaction times were very quick, and my sport IQ was a strength.


Playing soccer I could use my athletic abilities and skill within the sport to take on defenders. If I was playing against a higher skilled opponent, I could use my teammates to pass and make a run to get the ball back in space.


I was always more athletic than my training partners in mma.  I had the same advantages.  I was quicker, strong within the sport for my weight (I weighed 165lbs at the time) and had a good fight IQ.


I learned to fight by doing rounds with much higher skilled fighters.  I learned how to control distance to survive.  Controlling distance allowed me to simplify the round as my opponent would be too far away to take me down or throw their power hand with authority.


From there I could pick up on things that they were doing and use my athleticism to exploit those holes. I could have been more aggressive offensively at times, but I enjoyed the chess match.


In the clinch my length was an advantage.  I could get in a position where I could trip my opponent, but my opponent could not trip me. I had good balance and strong hips. My ground game was not very good, but my athleticism and strength helped me close that skill gap a little bit.


Powerlifting was very different.  For the first time I found an opponent that was able to take away all of my strengths and exploit my weaknesses.  My feet were forced to stay stationary and my quickness and athleticism didn’t matter. I couldn’t make any adjustments or alter a game plan to give me a better chance.


It just was what it was. I realized I would have to train for months in hopes of adding 5-15lbs on each lift.  This tests my patience like nothing I have ever done before.  It also makes me frustrated in ways I have never been frustrated before.


When things aren’t going well in training you have to just stick with it.  You can’t let those negative thoughts creep into training or that down period of time will stay down.  You have to have faith that you will come out the other side of this period in a good spot.  This is not easy when you know you are not very gifted in a sport.


I have done tens of thousands of rounds in my life.  Not every one of those rounds went well.  I have had rounds where I got taken down, put on my back, and punched in the face for 3-5 minutes.  As bad as that is, you know the round is ending and you can alter a plan of attack to better fight that opponent.


You can’t do that with powerlifting.  This sport is what it is.  Somedays you need to accept defeat, lower the weight, and move on.  I hate to fucking lose.  I don’t accept defeat, but the weights don’t care.  They will force you to.


The analyzing part of the sport happens over a longer period of time.  You need to analyze your performance and make a longer-term plan to fix those issues.  It is not just enough to make a plan, but you need to work your ass off in hopes of making small improvements.


The ironic part of this is you can never beat the weights.  There is always a higher weight to achieve and a weight that is heavy enough to crush you.  It is a sport that has the highest of highs due to how long and hard you need to work for progress, the lowest of lows due to the helplessness that comes with having to accept defeat to the weights on some days, but you can never be truly satisfied because there is always more weight.


This makes powerlifting the greatest sport in the world.  You can do it your whole life and it will challenge you in ways you can’t even imagine.  It is not for everyone.  Many are scared of weights and many do not have the mental strength to keep busting their ass through the frustration.  The real success comes from the character that it builds.


It builds confidence, work ethic, mental strength, and all the physiological benefits of strength training.  It builds camaraderie with friends.  Everyone is going through the same battles with you.  Powerlifting has given quite a few friends and I am thankful for that.


Powerlifting has also brought me to places I would have never gone without it.  I have gotten to experience those places with those same friends I made from competing in this sport.


It has also given me a career.  I have been coaching a long time.  I have 2 degrees in this field.  It is a field I am committed to and knew I wanted to be a part of.  The problem with that was it was hard to find my way in this field.


I hated personal training. I got burnt out with the high school and youth athletes and the pay was poor.  I didn’t like the college strength and conditioning setting very much.  It was a lot of hours, poor pay, and you were more of a cheerleader than a coach.


I even quit coaching for a while to go teach.  That is how much I didn’t want to do it anymore.  When I got back into it I only did it part time for a few extra bucks. My mma group fell apart in the mornings and I was starting to suffer some injuries I couldn’t keep up with.


I ripped my ear, tore my bicep, broke bones, and was just starting to always be in pain.  I was looking for an athletic outlet when I got drunk with Josh Bryant and Fred Hatfield.  A few months later I met Boris Sheiko and the rest is history.




Powerlifting not only gave me an athletic outlet, but it also gave me a place in the field I invested so much time and money in.  The pay is still poor, the hours are long, but I truly love what I do.  Loving what I do has been remarkable for my quality of life.


Even though it is a sport I will never be satisfied in and it will continue to frustrate me at times, it has given me so much.  For that I am thankful to this sport.

Developing Lifters

Written by: Kevin Cann


This topic is not always discussed in the powerlifting world.  As a coach for a team of about 40 lifters, I end up coaching lifters of all different abilities and at very different places in their powerlifting journeys.


They all come in with very different needs as well.  When Kerry walked into my office, she had a strong deadlift.  She had pulled 336lbs in a competition at 114lbs.  Her technique was terrible to say the least, but this is a very strong pull.


Her squat and her bench were not as strong.  Her best squat was 231lbs and her best bench was 110lbs.  Even though they were not as strong as her deadlift, they were still pretty strong.  This is after a very brief start in the sport.


Kelly Gamache on the other hand had zero experience when she started.  She had been in a gym but had not done the barbell lifts before.  Bev on the other hand had zero resistance training experience at all when she started.  In fact, the majority of the lifters that started with me had very limited experience.  Many of which now have qualified for Nationals.


The lifters that come to me with training experience and poor technique are the most difficult. They put strength on poor technique. It is much harder to break a bad habit then it is to create a new good habit.  The stronger the person is the more difficult this becomes.


When developing a lifter, every repetition needs to be with good technique.  The goal is to build a strong base with good technique and we can load it from there.  This past Saturday we had 10 lifters compete at the Granite State Grand Prix.


The majority of these lifters are beginners and were lifting in their first or second meets.  3 had a chance to qualify for Nationals, and they did. 1 of the 3 has been with me for a while so we have worked to get to this point.  1 I had known for a while from my previous job.  She had pretty decent technique and just had some minor things to work on.


The other I had been working with for about 4 months.  She had a 230lb squat, 165lb bench press, and 350lb deadlift as a 158lb lifter.  Her technique on the squat and deadlift both needed a lot of work.  The good thing with the squat is that she was lifting high bar.  Putting the bar lower changes the movement enough sometimes to make it foreign to the lifter.  She ended up putting 70lbs on her squat over this period just from those minor changes. They haven’t messed up the technique here enough to make it hard to fix.


This is actually a coaching technique I use a lot.  If someone comes in with really bad technique and they have some training experience, but aren’t elite, I will change up the movement to make it different enough where we are just starting over.


For example, if a lifter comes in with a very poor looking conventional deadlift, we may just pull sumo. Again, they haven’t messed this pattern up so many times before.


Outside of the ones attempting to qualify for Nationals, the others must display good technique on the platform for all of their attempts.  They have not earned the right to lift in bad positions yet.  There is a time and place to put more weight on the bar. Without qualifying for something or winning a big meet it does not matter.  Continue to build that base.


This includes those that come to me that have competed before, but technique is poor.  We will take on the platform a weight where it looks better than before.  This may mean taking less weight than you had hit previously.  This is to set you up for future success.


It is not always about hitting PRs.  There is a time and a place where the weight matters.  However, there is also a time and a place where setting yourself up for long term success takes precedence.  This is hard to do at times when you see everyone posting on social media.


It is not just about doing competition lifts and adding volume each week.  This is why so many online programs fail for lifters.  It is about putting the right weight on the bar, at the right time, with the right exercises that allows the athlete to develop a base of good technique.  Once we have that technique, we build volume off of that.  This is how we build long term success.


Just focusing on PRs and negating the actual coaching piece is not.  The PRs will come.  If we want them to keep coming a technical base needs to be established.  From there we can build the volumes necessary to get stronger.


We also need to develop the mental portion of powerlifting.  Beginners get scared of big weights.  This fear will alter technique.  Putting proper weight on the bar that allows them to strain is also important.  Most beginners don’t get what normal training strain is.


This is not so easy to do. We have to balance technique, because we don’t want it to breakdown, with enough weight to intimidate them a little bit.  This can be as easy as adding 5-10lbs to a given set.  Making them do something they have never done before.  It is not enough weight to break them down, but enough to make them a little nervous.


Seeing these opportunities as a coach is important to developing the lifter.  This sport has a big mental component to it.  Lifters need to learn it is ok to miss lifts, but not ok to miss them because they are scared.


Explaining the reasons for everything is also part of the process.  I want smart lifters.  A smart lifter can make adjustments as needed without me.  They also are more in-tune to their capabilities on meet day.  Also, it helps them buy into the program.  It also helps them have discussions with me about their training.  What they feel and what I see are very different at times.


We need to find some middle ground between these two.  A smarter lifter can have these discussions with me.  A beginner cannot.  They don’t know their body enough lifting to know what their feelings mean.  Part of the developmental process is developing the lifting IQ of the lifter.


I will go into more detail on this topic in a podcast.  Maybe breaking down the process with examples.





When We Fly to Washington Leave Your Doubt at Home

Written by: Kevin Cann


We always talk about what programs are best, what adjustments we make to training volumes to increase our totals, and technique.  One piece that we tend to forget about, but is equally important, is the mental aspects of this sport.


You know the greats in sports are great?  They do more than everyone else and yes, there are some genetic components here. However, they also believe in their greatness.


One of my favorite stories of all-time is centered around my favorite athlete of all-time, Tom Brady. This story was of him when he first joined the Patriots as a 6thround draft pick.  During practice he jumped in the huddle with the first team offense.


The coaching staff asked him what the hell he was doing, and his response was “I am going to be here anyways.”  He then went up to Robert Kraft and told him that drafting him was the best thing that organization had ever done.


He was a poorly rated NFL quarterback coming out of college as the 199thpick.  A college career that saw him split field time with a quarterback that went on to play baseball.  No other NFL teams or scouts had high expectations for him.  However, he believed in his greatness right from the start.


A couple of years ago, the Patriots were down 28-3 in the Super Bowl to the Atlanta Falcons.  You could hear Tom Brady yelling to everyone “You gotta believe.”  No team has ever come back from a deficit of more than 10 points in the Super Bowl. The odds were not in their favor.


They came back and won that football game.  This is relevant because maybe we are going to Nationals after a bad test, or you are coming off of a bad meet.  Maybe you had a rough training block.  However, “You gotta believe.”


We are about to fly across the country to compete on the biggest stage of the sport nationally. Leave your fucking doubts at home. “You gotta believe.”  Visualize how that weight will feel on your back and in your hands and visualize every scenario of lifting it.  Visualize smashing it, but also visualize grinding it out because even on a bad day you will not fail with that weight, you will just have to fight harder for it.


Leave the fear of failure at home as well.  You have a lifetime to compete in this sport, progress is inevitable.  Understand no matter what, this is just a step forward in your journey.  To quote another professional athlete who believes in his greatness, Connor McGregor, “We don’t lose, we win, and we learn.”


Accept that missing lifts is part of the sport, but don’t miss them because of doubt or fear.  Miss them because they are too heavy.  Next year, a few of the PPS lifters have a chance to advance to higher levels of this sport.  We have a few that can be in the mix for Primetime and others that would like to qualify for Nationals.  This attitude needs to be how we train.  We need to believe in our greatness and do everything we need to do to make these things happen.


Eating right, getting in quality sleep, and attacking every repetition in training (including accessory work) with a fucking purpose.  This group started with one person that couldn’t even squat when we started and a crazy small female that was scared of squatting 2 plates.


Now we are 37 strong and the majority of you had zero powerlifting experience when you joined the group.  All of you have the ability to accomplish anything you want in this sport.  You just gotta believe, erase all fears and doubts, attack training, and do everything outside of the gym you have to.


There is no room for doubt, lets fucking go!



I F’d Up

Written by: Kevin Cann


The internet is filled with a bunch of “coaches” always trying to show everyone how much they know. This article is going to be the exact opposite.  You see, this is my 3rdyear coaching powerlifting.


Even then, the first year I had 1 lifter, and the second year I ended up with 6 that came on at various points throughout the year.  It has really only been since last November that I began to grow and coach many more people.


At this point, I have 37 lifters plus some that have come and gone.  I am still a rookie coach trying to figure this shit out.


I was fortunate enough to get to work with Boris Sheiko for 3 years.  This definitely helped to speed up the learning curve.  He laid out the rules of his system and I followed them to a “T” and attempted to learn as much as possible.


I learned a ton and my lifters saw some really good progress during this time.  However, all I knew was Sheiko’s system.    I knew I had to branch out and learn from other coaches. This wasn’t easy because there was no one to learn from at the facility in which I worked at.


When I saw issues with a lifter I knew what Sheiko would prescribe for exercises and I would use them. However, this didn’t always work. I am not Boris Sheiko.  I can only hope to be at that level when I have coached for over 30 years.


I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of good coaches through the USAPL.  Over the course of the last 6 months or so I have had many hours of conversations with these coaches and I have learned how they handle various technique issues and how they coach and program.


I also decided to hire a coach that did things very differently than Sheiko, but with a very high level of success.  I understand my lifters are very different than those that Sheiko coached.  Most of my lifters played sports but lacked the same GPP gym work that the Russians and Ukrainians get.  They developed differently as children and have different needs as more mature adult athletes.


This is one reason why I believe I need to do things a bit differently than Sheiko.  I think the analytics, the recommended volumes, average intensities, and structure of high, medium, and low stress training days applies to everyone.  Of course there are even individual variables within those parameters, but that is my job as a coach.


Technique is the most important aspect of training.  I totally agree with this.  However, sometimes we need to vary a bit more and choose the right accessories in order to fix these issues.  I have used the Sheiko special exercises in comp stance and bar placement and grip width primarily for the last 3 years.


It was only in May that I began varying a bit more, and a little more than that this past summer. I am still learning what works where and when to use certain exercises.  It is not as easy as just identifying a weakness and inserting an exercise.


I am used to doing things a certain way and I need to make sure that these exercises fit within the structure of our programs.  This is where I fucked up the most.


Nick Santangelo has a big gap between his conventional and sumo deadlifts.  His conventional is weak and I wanted to strengthen it with the hope of it carrying over into his sumo deadlift.  At his previous test he hit a 25lb PR.


At that time we pulled heavy singles every other week from the floor and had 2 days of comp style sumo deadlifts.  I got too cute and overthinking his program.  I gave him one sumo deadlift day and one conventional day.


In order to keep the comp lift volume high enough we used a lot of lighter weights for sets of 3 to 5. We didn’t get over 80% for triples from the floor.  We did touch 90% from 2” mats a couple of times, which I thought would be enough.


Nick’s conventional required him to use very light weights relative to his competition deadlift. Not only was the weight too light, but now he is getting less practice with his competition lift.  I should have just done some light conventional work on his day 2 when he performs his comp deadlifts and kept the 2 days of sumo deadlifts.


I also only analyzed his lifts for where technique broke down.  His start position was poor, and we definitely improved that from last Nationals. However, he has really short arms and a moderate sumo stance.


When the bar is at his knees, his knees are pretty straight.  This is where he struggles within the lift.  You will see the shaking start here.  Once the bar gets above the knees and his glutes can kick in he can lock it out no problem.


We needed to focus more on strengthening the muscles involved with the lift here.  Nick squats more than he deadlifts as well.  The difference between the 2 lifts is the hamstrings.  The deadlift puts more emphasis on the hamstrings than the squat (differences in erectors as well).


I should have been hammering Nick’s hamstrings more.  We had goodmornings in there and were working on making them heavier, but they were not heavy enough.  I used a snatch grip on his RDLs which required less weight and more emphasis on the back muscles.  Moving forward we will do stiff-legged sumo RDLs with normal grip, GHRs, and blocks at this height.  The glute, hamstring, and adductor activity is the exact same between the sumo and conventional, so we will do the majority of this in a sumo stance.  We will move his feet around from wide to close within the sumo to see the differences.


We won’t abandon the conventional though.  I think it is important that we build this up, but we can build this up as a secondary movement, and not a primary deadlift movement.


Dave is the opposite. His back is his strength in the deadlift and his quads need to be stronger.  I thought 75% tempo deadlifts and pauses right off the floor were enough. Those were the right variations, but I need to put the right weight on the bar.  I should have left them in his program longer and told him what to put on the bar and not let my Excel spreadsheets dictate the weight.  His accessories should have been ones that blast the quads and hamstrings as well.


I have been vocal about Kerry’s deadlift issues.  She has put 2.5kg on her deadlift in 2 years with me.  I have literally tried everything.  Her technique is very poor with heavy weights and that is 100% my fault. I have not done my job here.


I have used lighter weights to not allow a breakdown, but they were way too light.  I let her just lift and we did a DUP all comp lift linear block, and here we are, still in the same place we were 2 years ago.


Kerry, Nick, and Dave have made great progress over this time with me.  They have improved their totals quite a bit, but in order for them to make the next step I need to get my shit together.  Kerry can compete for a national championship in the near future in the 52kg class. In order to be a world class lifter she needs a world class coach, so I need to get my shit together. Her squat has gone from 230lbs to 292lbs during this time and her bench from 115lbs to 140lbs.  Imagine where she would be if we got the deadlift to improve.


She needs to learn how to use those quads in the deadlift.  They are strong, as they can squat nearly 300lbs, but she pulls the sumo deadlift like it is a poorly executed conventional deadlift.  I have been struggling to find the middle ground of keeping her strength but fixing her technique.


This requires some specific exercises to fix, but we are going to widen her stance and force her to learn to use her legs.  We will structure training in a way to build a lot of volume with very light weights, but still work up to something heavy enough to get that training effect.


Her technique begins to break down around 300lbs.  285lbs looks pretty good and that is around 80%.  We will work up to sets of this to start and increasing volume in lighter sets. We will also do isometric holds 2” off the ground to reinforce that start position and various height block pulls and rack pulls to strengthen her hips.


An example may be triples at 50%, 55%, 60%, 65%, 70%, 75%, 80% (285lbs), followed by 70-75% 3×3 3 sec pause holds 2” off the floor.  This gives her the majority of her volume performed with good technique.  On her day 4 we may do 4” block pulls to feel the weight.  From there we can chip away at the 285lbs and build volume by doing multiple sets at 75% beforehand or 70% if we have to.


I believe that that is finding middle ground.  Not so much trying to teach her some hybrid fucking deadlift position.  Just because Sheiko would give me 4-5 sets of 3 at 80% doesn’t mean that is right for everyone.


The example of Kerry’s future program fits within my system of recommended volumes, average intensities, number of lifts, and so on.  I need to stop worrying so much about my Excel spreadsheets and start being better at COACHING.  The spreadsheets are my guide, not the coach.