A Letter to My Younger Self

Written By: Kevin Cann


The NFL Hall of Famers write letters to their younger selves once they get inducted into the Hall of Fame. I really like this idea.  I have been coaching a long time, but I have been in powerlifting now for 5 years.


This is not a lot of time, but I think it is a milestone in this sport.  I feel the majority of the people in this sport have been in it for less time than that.  I still have a lot to learn.  In fact, learning never stops.


I wouldn’t be where I am today without making all of the mistakes that I made.  I will make many more mistakes that will lead me to get even better than I am now.  With PPS, we will always try new things in the pursuit of strength.  Sometimes we miss, but sometimes we hit big.


Dear younger Kevin,


I know you have been out of coaching for about 9 months.  You took a job teaching at a school because the daily grind of being a strength coach got to you.  You enjoyed coaching the high school athletes and the adult classes that you had, but the money was poor and there was definitely something missing.  You weren’t challenged.


After this break, you are about to enter a completely different world within the fitness community.  The world of competitive strength.  You are about to find out that you don’t know shit about getting people strong.


It is time to dump your FMS screens and “perfect movement” narratives.  You won’t do this right away; it will take time.  However, those things make coaching easy.  Anyone can coach someone to get a better score on an FMS screen, or to achieve more optimal movement.  Worrying about these things will only hinder their strength.


You will learn that those things don’t matter.  This will shatter the foundation of everything you believed you built your coaching philosophy off of.  This will be really tough to swallow, but it is necessary for you to grow into a better coach of competitive strength athletes.


This is a lesson you will learn the hard way.  You will hire Sheiko as a coach because you really like what he says about technique. This will be the biggest and most important time period of your coaching career.  You know you are lucky to have him as a coach, but his importance was understated at the time.


You loved that under Sheiko, technique was the most important aspect of training because it fit your old narrative of optimal movement.  Eventually you will see lifters struggle to get better with this narrative.  It will not be because technique does not matter, but because you don’t really know it is not as easy as “better movement equals better results.”  This will force you to seek out your own answers to so many questions.


This will be tough to do, because so many of these answers will contradict your beliefs and what you believe to be true.  You will latch on to popular beliefs within the community in which you are lifting.  This wasn’t the facility in which you were working in, but a community filled with a lack of experience within the sport itself.


A community filled with regurgitations of other people’s words (that you will add to) with little knowledge on what it actually takes to produce long-term strength.  In doing this you will miss the message of some coaches that have been coaching longer than you have been alive.


You will discard what they say in the name of science.  Cherry-picking articles and poking holes in those coach’s narratives.  You will be completely unaware of the blind spots within the research.  Not sure you would have even cared, as you only cared about proving what you know. And of course you know better than those that have been getting people to top levels of strength for decades.


You will be one of the crowd shouting that “Westside sucks” and equipped lifting is cheating and a completely different sport.  It is different, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore aspects of it.  At the end of the day it is still about getting stronger.


You will make a smart move and surround yourself with more experienced coaches.  You will realize that a couple of them love quite a few aspects of Westside’s training methods, and even the one that isn’t a huge fan of them, doesn’t disregard everything that Westside does.


You will reluctantly be convinced to start a podcast.  This podcast will have a few world level lifters, other coaches, and researchers as guests.  You will get to have very lengthy conversations with all of these people. This will be huge for your learning.


You will discuss many theoretical concepts on the podcast and in your blog.  You will have trolls because of this.  Remember that they don’t know what training with PPS really looks like. At the end of the day it is not that different from what everyone else is doing.  They just think you are nuts.


The more you talk to other coaches, lifters, and researchers, the more open minded you will become.  You will see many parallels between the pain science world and performance.  You will have a smart group of physical therapists that will help you make sense of that world and make it easier to connect those dots.


You will be able to put innovation on top of the foundation of general principles that Sheiko taught you for 3 years.  Eventually, you will come back around full circle and realize that those coaches that you discarded in the beginning were actually onto something.


You will begin to see your own methods put onto paper.  These methods will be a combination of the things you learned with Sheiko, and what you have learned works for the culture of PPS.  You will see Sheiko’s influence in the program, you will see the influence from the researchers you have spoken with, and you will even see the influence of Westside in your program.


Continue to keep an open mind as you coach.  Continue to learn as much as you can.  Continue to use science to guide the process but understand that science has blind spots that can be filled in by continuing to talk to those that have been successful in this sport for long periods of time.


Continue to try out new things.  Never stop experimenting.  The goal of the team is to continue to grow and learn in the name of strength.  This is a big reason why lifters in PPS see results. We have this desire to try whatever we can to get stronger than everyone else.  That attitude goes a long way.


And no matter what just keep outworking every other coach by reading, learning, talking to others, experimenting in the gym, and coaching your ass off.


Technique + Strength + Skill, Oh My


Written by: Kevin Cann


I have officially been involved in the sport of powerlifting for 5 years now.  I literally had to do the math a few times because I did not believe it.  The older I get the faster that time seems to move.  My daughter is somehow 11 years old too!


Over this period of time I have been fortunate enough to learn from so many other coaches and athletes. I also have been fortunate enough to learn from so many of the PPS lifters as well.  We have changed what we do quite a bit over time.


Being coached by Sheiko for the first 3 years, our programs looked very similar to what Sheiko’s looked like.  However, I found out that that style of training will not work as well with lifters here.  A big reason for this is due to our culture and the time we spend in this sport.


In Russia they go to schools where powerlifting is basically a subject.  From the time they are a youth athlete, they are part of the Soviet System.  To save time I will not go into details on how this works, but they follow this system for over 10 years before they are even a junior in competitions.


Not every athlete there climbs up the classification chart to be a Master of Sport in International Competition.  Many lifters “wash out” of these schools long before that happens.  Once they are identified to not have what it takes to get further, they are given a certificate for their current classification and they move on.  Some might even move on to coaching.


The ones that end up becoming a Master of Sport or higher are the ones that continue to see progress with this style of training.  My guess is this is the same as the Greek and Bulgarian systems as well.  Not every Russian reaches this classification, we just hear about the ones that do.


Sheiko was big on technique first.  This often gets misunderstood in translation.  He would control loads but make them more difficult with variations to work on technique within the lifts.  You would get a lot of practice with these variations and these same loads. Training was very hard, but very hard in a different way.  It was a lot of work, often taking over 3 hours to complete a session.


We had great success using these methods, but I learned that technique was still breaking down with heavier weights.  I remember Sheiko talking about meeting Louie Simmons and the difference in their programming.  Sheiko said that Louie emphasized strength first, while he emphasized technique first.


This wasn’t a criticism of his methods.  Instead it was a very enlightening conversation about how coaching works. Sheiko also said that powerlifting is big enough for many different methods.  This also resonated with me quite a bit.


I started adding in more heavier weights into our training.  Over about a 2 year period, we added many heavier weights into our training. We work up to 1-2 hard sets of an RPE 8.5-9.5 each training session.


I also added in more drastic variations to bring a skill component to our training.  I started placing lifters in positions that would punish technical inefficiencies, and we will push weights in these positions. This is how we acquire those skills. Lifting heavy also allows the lifter to practice their skill of competing.


When we go to a competition, most lifters for PPS are not nervous.  We do this every day in the gym.  We compete.  Not against each other, but against ourselves and our emotions.  We learn to harness them and be more confident lifters.


Perhaps we swung the pendulum too far towards the strength side.  When I initially changed things up, I assumed the warmups would be enough to get those sets in to work on technique.  However, I realized many lifters were taking huge jumps and all of the focus was on the top set.  The warmups were just pushed aside as nothing more than that, a warmup.


Also, lifters were taking huge jumps to not be “tired” for their top set.  Basically, lifters were doing like 9 seconds of good solid work for each lift.  That is it. That is a far cry from the 3+ hours we would train in the beginning.  This made me realize that I need to interject here again.


I started giving more days with more “top sets”. For example, a lifter might hit a hard set of 3 reps at 300lbs on the squat, at an RPE 9.  I might have them hit this for 2-3 sets the following week, and then even maybe 3-4 sets the week after that.  Sometimes I drop the weight a little to do this.  The following week we may work up to a heavy triple again. This has been working well.


They get more practice with submaximal weights that are still heavy, and we see that triple go up pretty significantly.  When we push a single now, we see a bigger number on that bar.  I base these decisions off of their best competition lifts.


This is a nice parallel between how we ran a Sheiko style program before to what we do now.  It takes care of the weights being too light, and since they work up to a heavy set the week before, I have a good idea for what weight we put on the bar.  These sessions are VERY difficult.


One other aspect of a Sheiko program is the alternating of stress levels on each training day.  Some days are high stress, others medium, and some low.  When I go back and look at everyone’s programs now, we see this trend play out for everyone.


We have been doing a lot more comp singles in training as well.  This is not something we work up to each training day.  This is a weight I prescribe, that they are not allowed to go up from.  If they feel like shit they can go down, but I encourage them to just hit this weight no matter what.


This weight is a hard, but doable weight.  It is not something they should miss.  Often it lies between their best double and triple.  On a good day it might be an RPE 8, and on a tough day it will be a solid RPE 9. It is basically practice with a weight between an opener or second attempt.


This helps me to gauge their progress a bit.  It also gives each lifter some feedback as to where they are at on a given training day and it can help them make better decisions on their other work.  It highlights some weaknesses within their comp lifts too and they work on tightening it up under that given load.


I have gone through periods of time where I put more emphasis on accessories and less emphasis on them.  This has been one of those things I have really struggled with.  I use far more variation now than I used to.


We are constantly changing foot position, bar position, grip, and stance.  This is to ensure that we are training all angles and creating well rounded lifters.  I think this decreases the need for accessory work.  Accessory work comes in more as a filler when the volume drops for the competition lifts and their variations.


My programs have gotten far simpler over time.  I write a lot about theoretical concepts, but our programs are extremely simple.  I give the lifter way more responsibility now. I went from being a dictator to being a facilitator.  I guide the process with exercises to improve technical efficiency, suggested weight, and many conversations to help each lifter make the best training decisions possible each training day.


Over my 5 years of coaching in this sport we focused on technique over everything, swung the pendulum far to the strength side, and began to focus on strength as a skill.  Now it is time to bring it all together.  To take these last 5 years of learning and put our best product on the platform.

Westside May Have Been Right, but for the Wrong Reasons


Written by: Kevin Cann


The documentary “Westside vs the World” was released last week.  I thought this was a very well-done documentary and I would highly recommend it. The culture of Westside is absolutely fascinating.


The last few weeks I have gone back and listened to some of the Westside podcasts and read a bunch of the articles.  I like going back and revisiting old information once I have learned more myself.


Sometimes this change in perspective helps me understand better why the methods may or may not have worked.  I was doing this so that my coach and I could be more on the same page as well.


I like to know his thinking for exercises in my program.  I think in a few cases I had a different idea on why an exercise was in the program. This alters the way I go into it and whether I agree or not with it, also increases my buy in.


I have safety squat bar tempo squats and front squats in this block.  These are two exercises I do not use unless an injury requires it. Knowing my coach’s thinking helps with me doing these exercises.


I will always work hard no matter what and this is more important than the exercise, but it still helps.  Ironically, the SSB gave me good feedback on the squat.  I realized I was just leaning back hard with my torso out of the hole. I could tell because the loss of stability with the exercise.


I focused on flexing my quads out of the hole and this really helped that issue.  It helped it so much that I was able to take an extra set 20lbs more than my top set and it was still pretty easy.  My coach told me this exercise was good for me to build my upper back.


I was really focusing on that part of the lift.  Focusing on that and then adjusting with driving through my legs, might have some nice carryover into my competition lift.  We shall see in a couple weeks.  In hindsight, I wasn’t using my upper back in the squat, but my lower back.  This is the breakdown seen in my deadlift as well. I found this interesting.


I always had a sour taste of Westside in my mouth.  I watched it get bastardized for years where I worked.  Basically a group of Westside, multiply, wannabes screaming and yelling and lifting weights that Dave reps out raw.


I saw high box squats, floor press with all chains and barely any bar weight, swiss bar bands and chains bench press, bendy bar exercises, and many others.  This was not Westside, but nothing more than a bastardized version using random variations.


Louie Simmons is brilliant. He seems to be a hair off his rocker, but he is pretty smart.  He was not picking exercises randomly.  He was picking them based off of what he saw to strengthen weaknesses.  This is exactly what I do.  The only difference is he has been doing this longer than I have been alive.


Simmons would identify weak areas in the lift, but he would use the reasoning that a certain muscle or muscle group was weak.  He may have picked the right exercise for the lifter, but it was for the wrong reasons.


I do not believe these exercises were strengthening weak muscles, but instead weakening a poor skill. Louie was putting these variations that the lifter struggled with in the program for 3 weeks.  This is not enough time to strengthen a muscle, but definitely enough practice to improve a skill.


This would also explain why when other lifters and coaches use these methods, they do not get the same results they would get if they trained at Westside.  If it was as simple as identifying weak muscles and selecting an exercise, anyone could do it.


Louie’s intuition is Westside.  The other coaches and lifters do not have that.  They have methods to follow that are incorrect in their explanation.  Once one of these exercises does not work, they will most likely bring in another to attack that same weak muscle group.


This can become a very frustrating and futile endeavor.  This can lead to a lack of success in running the program and the lifter moving on to something else.  This was not because Westside was inefficient, but the coach or lifter’s understanding of the philosophy is poor.


A coach needs to use a framework that is open ended and understands the human is an open, complex, nonlinear, organism.  We are much more than a bag of muscles.  Perhaps those “weak” muscles get strengthened from the exercises, but this is a byproduct of the training.


Some other aspects of Westside that fits into the dynamic systems theory framework are, they get breakfast each day together to discuss training.  Each lifter is responsible for identifying weaknesses and choosing accessories.


The lifters are included in the training process and forced to develop self-efficacy.  The accessories make up about 80% of their volume and they are the ones choosing the exercises.  I thought this was pretty cool.


The environment at Westside was competitive and intense.  The lifters pushed each other.  You either fell in line or you did not last.  This social group dynamic is an environmental constraint.


They worked through pain. They weren’t scared of pain.  They understood that sometimes shit would hurt. Don’t get me wrong, I think they went too far with this at times.  Perhaps a few moderate weight sets would have been more appropriate at times than competing with world record holders, but I feel a lot of the current day lifters could use more of this attitude.


Drugs and gear aside, these guys got strong as shit because of Louie’s innovation with variability and his identifying weaknesses (even though he believes it is certain muscle groups and I do not.  We could still come up with the same exercises for different reasons.  The framework is important for future decisions so that you do not get stuck banging your head against a wall looking for answers), the environment, and the lifter buy-in and respect for Louie as a coach.


This sounds a lot like what John Kiely talks about in his editorials.  All the way from the importance of variability, self-efficacy, and lifter buy-in.  They also, trained hard when they felt like shit at times.  Kiely mentions this as well.


He said something along the lines of, if you have an Olympic event on a day you feel like shit what are you going to do?  Come back tomorrow?  You are going to suck it up and go hard.  Training can be a place to practice this.


I do think they could have been smarter at Westside with those decisions.  Getting injured in training for making a bad decision on a day is what I would consider low training skill.  This responsibility falls on the relationship between coach and lifter and the communication that they have.


All in all, I agree a lot more with Louie Simmons and Westside than I used to.  A major part is my newly acquired perspective on training as a skill.  I think another part was putting aside what I saw being mimicked as Westside and went right to the source.

The Importance of Variation and GPP

Written by: Kevin Cann


This is a topic that came up multiple times within the last few days for me.  It is something that I think is very important and something that I think a lot of coaches miss the mark with.


In a conversation with Zac Cooper, he made a great point.  Many of the people involved in powerlifting have been in powerlifting for less than 5 years.  This includes both athletes and coaches.


It is crazy to think about that.  I literally fall into that category.  At this point 3 years ago I had not been to one powerlifting meet and didn’t even know the rules of the sport.  I have a master’s degree in this field, over ten years’ experience, and access to the internet.


I could have easily just pretended I knew what I was talking about.  However, that is not how I am wired.  I was fortunate enough to attend a Boris Sheiko seminar at this time.  He presented information on his system that led to a ton of success of the Russian National Team over a 7-year period.


There was one thing that I knew at the time and that was that the Russians were the ones to learn about the strength sports from.  I decided to reach out and ask Sheiko to be my coach.  At this same time, I forced Danielle Bond, my intern to be my guinea pig.


I coached Danielle for a year before I took on another lifter.  During this time I read everything I could and learned as much as I could from Sheiko via conversations and just training under him.  Danielle saw some really big success during this time as I was figuring stuff out.


A little over a year later Kerry walked into my office.  At this point I had a basic understanding of some foundational principles and I had worked some kinks out with Danielle.  I decided to take Kerry on as a lifter and she has also seen some great success over this time.


Nick and Dave followed shortly after and they too have added quite a bit to their totals.  This was great early success and I knew we were onto something.  My place of employment held a second Sheiko seminar around this period of time and myself and 3 others got a private training lesson.


I saw how he coached in person.  He also talked about meeting Simmons out at Westside Barbell and the differences within the programs.  He explained the Westside programs prioritized strength over technique and he prioritized technique over strength.


I also learned about how the Russian powerlifters were brought up.  They went to schools that offered the sport as a class, just like science.  In the early years they did gymnastics followed by tons of GPP work.  As they got into their teen years the GPP exercises decreased and the competition lifts took a bigger priority.


My lifters were not raised in this system.  They have some different needs than Russian lifters.  I knew I had to learn more about the “American” lifter.  I reached out to coaches that had strong lifters and utilized a lot of variation in their programs.


I now do a monthly podcast with these coaches and I am coached by one of them.  I always kept variations very similar to the competition lifts as that is what Sheiko did with me.  The more that I learned, the more I realized that we may need to vary a bit more.


My argument was for skill development and specificity.  I wasn’t wrong with that.  The Sheiko variations will increase skill in the lifts better than other variations. However, other variations definitely have a role.


Most American lifters do not get into this sport until their 20s.  They never built the same base as the Russian lifters.  Many lifters were fortunate enough to do some weight room stuff as many played sports.  However, this is not the same.


Many lifters developed strengths and weaknesses based off of their sports.  In a conversation with Nick Guidice something clicked here.  He was discussing learning a skill later in life and how it was more difficult.


This is something I knew, but for some reason at that moment it clicked for me.  I focus so heavily on technique, with a group that can only go so far with that focus.  I began using a lot more variations with everyone after this.


This included high bar wide and close stance squats, all kinds of bench grips, and opposite stance deadlifts.  Since I added in these exercises I have seen some more increases in totals.  I also think it plays a role in the health of the athletes.


Those Russian lifters were building a base with all of that GPP.  This base prepares them for the volumes being asked of them by making them more resilient and building that work capacity.  Many American lifters do not have their base.


This is more important in reducing injury risk than increasing performance.  I was solely focused on performance earlier on and I was missing this part.  I have a good handle on load management in general, so I feel I am well ahead of the curve here.


However, I think if we make the weak positions stronger we not only get an increase in performance, but we also make a more resilient athlete.  We need to find a way to balance getting enough practice with the lifts as well as setting up the athlete for long term success.


There is a time and place to be specific and a time and place to utilize more variations.  I also do not think we need to crush lifters in the middle of the pack competing at Nationals.  I also see a lot of this.


A few of my lifters are still running a decent amount of variations before Nationals because this is what is best for them right now.  They are not going to win their weight class.  Alyssa for example, is competing in her first Nationals.  She just hit some heavy singles in high bar wide stance squats last night.


This is because it is what is best for her right now.  Her knees were caving in and this variation is teaching her how to push her knees out while strengthening those muscles.  A year from now if she continues to progress things will change a bit more.


Kerry on the other hand gets way more comp lifts right now as she has a chance to earn us team points. After Nationals Kerry, Nick, Dave, and Danielle Bond will get something a bit different.  They have a good shot at Primetime next year and we will structure their programs with that in mind.  In the beginning we are going to prepare them for the brutal training that will ensue later in the year.  Everything they have done has prepared them for what is to come as well.


Understand where your lifter is along their journey and make the appropriate decisions for that time. You need to keep the long game in mind when doing this.  Variations and GPP are a major part of that.  I am grateful for those coaches that have helped me see that from Boris Sheiko, to Zac Cooper, Ryan Gleason, Nick Guidice, and Jeremy Hartman.

How We Use the Maximum Effort Method

Written by: Kevin Cann


Zatsiorsky states in The Science and Practice of Strength Training That the maximal effort method is the act of lifting a maximal load against maximal resistance.  This method, according to Zatsiorsky, is best for improving the intramuscular and intermuscular coordination to improve maximal strength.


He is basically saying that lifting heavy is best to lift heavy due to the adaptations of the muscles and the central nervous system.  Any lift taken between 90% and 100% of one rep max will fall into this category.


The problem with frequently hitting repetitions above 90% in training is that it can lead to psychological burnout and the risk of injury becomes higher.  However, training at 90% and greater has a number of positive benefits as well.


One way in which heavier weights can improve strength is through rate coding and muscle fiber recruitment.  Rate coding is basically how fast your body can recruit muscle fibers.  The faster it can fire or the more “twitches” the fibers can perform in a given time period, the more force you will produce.


These are neurological adaptations that occur between 90% and 100% of 1RM, according to Zatsiorsky.  With that said, you do not need to work up to 100% in the gym to get these adaptations.  We need to keep in mind that the majority of this research is based off of elite Russian weightlifters, not powerlifters of various abilities.


We have been very successful touching these weights very rarely.  We improve squats better than any of the three lifts as a group by taking heavy doubles and triples between 80% and 88% of one rep max.  Also, you get no more of a training stimulus in terms of rate coding at 90% compared to 100% and due to exertion load the 2nd or 3rd repetition at 85% will be more difficult than a single at 90%.  However, I do believe there are still benefits to lifting heavier weights more frequently, which I will get to.


The inter and intramuscular coordination gets improved when we practice the lifts with lighter weights and higher repetitions.  We want a combination of these 2 elements to put us in the best position possible to lift the most weight.


Most programs try to utilize these principles in their methods.  However, this tends to be where methods begin to differ.  Westside maxes out 2 days per week in the gym while other programs very rarely ever touch weights above 90%.


My program with Boris Sheiko lies somewhere in the middle.  I touch 90% or greater on the deadlift and bench press, but these are usually off blocks or using a board or Slingshot.  I very rarely touch these weights in the competition lifts themselves.


The longer I spend coaching this sport, the more my philosophy on certain things changes.  I believe a coaching philosophy is something that is always being adapted based upon self-reflection and analysis of lifters.


Upon the analysis of our club’s performances, and looking over their programs, I determined that we needed to lift heavier more often.  Even though, as I stated before, I am not sure there is more to gain physiologically from lifting 90% compared to 85% to 88%.  I think the biggest gains will be psychological.


Oftentimes when my lifters do not touch weights at 90% or above they begin to lose confidence when they approach a test day before competition.  The thoughts of “I haven’t touched more than 85% in my lifts, how will I hit a new PR?” begins to creep in.  This can lead to a poor performance.


To counter act those negative thoughts we will take 90% to 92% more often in the peaking blocks as competition draws near.  However, in the prep blocks we will go about our training a bit differently.


Instead of taking the competition lifts at 90% or higher, we will take heavy singles between 80% and 88% of one rep max of the chosen variation for that lifter.  We use variations to bring up weak positions of the lift.  We very rarely do these variations above 75%.  Variations make the lift more difficult, so the overall stress is heavier than 75% so there is carryover to strength improvements here.


We will begin to stress these variations between 80% and 85% more frequently.  A pause squat with this weight will be very difficult and the stress will be similar to 90% or greater being on the bar.  As the meet draws near we will take the heavy singles in the competition lifts themselves.


Currently this may look like the following:


2 sec Pause Squat 50%x3, 60%x3, 70%x3, 75% 5×2


Moving forward it will look like the following:


2 sec Pause Squat 50%x3, 60%x3, 70%x3, 75% 2×2, 80% 2×1, 75% 2×2-This may get up to 80% 2×2 or 85% for singles in the same variation.


The number of lifts will not change much, but some will just get a bit heavier.  These variations progress through the program for 3 to 6 weeks typically.  The repetition work will come in the second squat session of the same day and/or the following squat training day.


I have been using these changes for a few weeks now and I really like what I am seeing.  80% for pauses looks difficult for a week or 2, but then we start to see some really good progress.  The “getting after” the weights have some carryover to the main lifts as well and overall training mentality.  I see far less “grooving” of the weights and more aggressive lifting, which I like.


Checkout Kevin’s e-book “Precision Powerlifting Systems” here