How I Use Variations and Their Importance

Written by: Kevin Cann


Variations make up an important part of our programming.  With Sheiko, about 60% of my total volume comes from what he calls “special exercises.”  These special exercises consist of varying our competition movement in some slight way to fix technical issues within the competition lift itself.


For example, we may pause in the squat on the halfway down if the lifter tends to slow down when they enter the bottom position of the squat.  The pause allows the lifter to concentrate on picking up speed from that point on within the lift.


This is just an example of a variation that we use.  There have been quite a few in my program over the last 140 weeks.  I have used many of these same variations with my lifters based upon their technical issues within the lift.


The more I branched out and expanded my network of coaches, the more I learned how others utilize variations within their programs.  A few of the coaches that I respect greatly have shared some of their info with me. Some of these coaches are Ryan Gleason, Zac Cooper, Nick Guidice, and Jeremy Hartman.


They use variations to build strength in different positions.  I have always been on the understanding that the competition lifts are skilled movements.  The athlete practices the same movement pattern over and over to improve their neuromuscular coordination (skill) within the lift.


If there is a breakdown in technique it is because the athlete’s coordination is not up to par. Hence, why the variations are very similar to the competition lifts themselves.  They help the athlete improve their coordination.


After talking to other coaches, I noticed that they used variations to build strength.  This could be in various important muscle groups or an exercise that varies from the competition movement quite a bit.


I am not one to let my ego get in the way of my progression as a coach.  I also understand that I have not been doing this very long and still have a lot to learn.  The fact that these successful coaches, with more experience than myself, and many strong lifters have used variations in this manner made me think quite a bit.


It is not a matter of just incorporating the variations like they do.  It is a matter of understanding how they are utilizing them and figuring out how they fit best in my system.  My system is based off of mixing up a high stress, medium stress, and low stress days with maximal and submaximal work sprinkled in.


Technique is still the biggest aspect of our training.  Our average intensity stays between 68% and 72% of 1RM and our ACWR stays between .80-1.30, while making sure each lifter hits their recommended volumes for the class of lifter they are.


This is more complex of a process than many think it needs to be.  We are not just talking about getting stronger but improving our totals as much as possible while staying healthy for the long term.  This is why having a qualified coach is extremely important.


Variations are an important aspect to getting stronger AND staying healthy.  Doing the same movement pattern over and over can lead to a plateau in technique improvement and strength improvement due to adaptive resistance.  Basically, you can’t just change sets and reps in the competition movements and keep driving progress.  At some point something stalls, or injury occurs.


At the same time, we need to practice our sport.  Performing the competition movements is extremely important in powerlifting. This is even more true the closer to competition that we get,


So how do we balance both? Currently I follow a similar structure to my program.  20% of the volume is competition lifts and 60% of the volume is variations.  The other 20% comes from accessory work. Where I have changed the programming lies within the 60% in variations.


Depending on the skill level of the lifter and how far they are from competition a portion of those variations will be lifts that don’t necessarily mimic their competition lifts as much as what we used previously.  For example, we may use alternate stance deadlifts as a variation.


I categorize every lifter as follows (there are subcategories as well):

  1. Strong with good technique
  2. Strong with poor technique
  3. Weak with good technique
  4. Weak with poor technique


Each one of the lifter’s lifts gets a rating.  If they are strong with good technique we can load the movement with some higher intensities. With this lifter I like to find a variation that they are not good at and really drive it until they are strong.




For example, some of my sumo pullers have really weak conventional pulls and some conventional pullers have weak sumo pulls.  In these cases, we can program that alternate deadlift and keep it in there until the gap between the maxes is closed.


In this last block we drove Kerry’s conventional deadlift.  Her best was around 275lbs when we started and kept pushing it until she hit 315lbs.  This is a big reason why she hit a PR of 350lbs at 52kg.




If someone has poor technique we will not vary much from the competition movement.  We will use many of the same variations that Sheiko has used with me and keep focusing on maximizing technique until it is better and then we will use variations that stray more from the competition lifts.


Maytal’s best squat was 305lbs when we started working together.  She had many technical things to fix.  We kept the weight lower, all variations using competition grip, stance, and bar placement and we built a strong movement.


She ended up taking 315lbs for a couple doubles this week.  Now that her technique is better we can start adding in other variations to build strength.  Just like most stuff, everything falls within that inverse U.




Too much or too little of anything is typically bad.  Too much variation and you do not build good technique within the competition movements. Too little variation and you can stall in strength gains and even increase the risk of injury.


You need the right amount of variation and the right variations that help you improve maximally as a lifter.  This is why hiring a qualified coach is important to your total and long-term progress. There is a lot more that goes into this than what many people think.

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