Written By: Kevin Cann
There was a popular thread on Reddit that was asking people their most controversial things with powerlifting. I didn’t read the thread, but Nick Santangelo had told me about it. He also asked me what I think my most controversial coaching strategy would be.
I thought that this would be a good topic for an article. I told Nick that my most controversial coaching strategy is most likely with mobility stuff. If you scroll far enough back on my Instagram account, you can see that I used to be all about the “mobility” stuff.
I used assessments to find movement dysfunction and applied the appropriate corrective exercise. Often times this corrective exercise required the use of some device like a foam roller or a lacrosse ball followed by some type of “stability” drill because we know that all of that instability can be a bitch.
Then something happened. In constantly challenging my beliefs I came across a research study showing that the predictive nature of the FMS was probably not what I believed. At this same time I was working with the legendary powerlifting coach Boris Sheiko.
I was a complete beginner at the time I began working with him. My technique was terrible. Other coaches were telling me to add in all of these exercises to help, but Sheiko was giving me variations of the lifts instead to fix those issues.
I stopped doing all foam rolling and mobility exercises before I trained. Instead I took the empty bar for 3-4 sets of 10 reps and Sheiko writes out all of my warmups. My technique got better, and surprisingly my body actually felt a lot better.
I was getting this on and off nagging hip and shoulder pain while lifting. A pain I have not experienced since I removed the “mobility” exercises that I THOUGHT I needed. We will visit that in a minute.
Now, during this time I was training more, and the pain may have gone away with or without the mobility exercises in there. However, the biggest part that I believe it helped was I no longer THOUGHT that I needed them.
You see, our perceptions and our beliefs are part of the pain. I thought I needed to do these warmups because without the proper hip mobility/stability I would get hurt. I had a belief that the body was pretty frail I guess.
Removing these mobility exercises and not experiencing pain, allowed me to change my perceptions and beliefs. Knock on wood, I have not experienced any issues in over 2 years. This got my wheels turning and made me want to understand why.
This experience, coupled with the research, shattered everything I had believed to be true for the last 10 years. The icing on the top of the cake was a meta-analysis that concluded that the FMS was not a good predictive tool for injury.
I am connecting some dots here, but if a movement screen could not predict injury risk, then how does movement relate to injury? I had believed that movement dysfunction led to injury. I began researching more and surrounding myself with smarter people than me when it comes to this stuff.
Surprisingly to me at the time, movement dysfunction and posture are very poorly correlated to pain in the literature. I made the decision at this time to have everyone I coach stop rolling and doing mobility exercise to warmup and instead to warm up with the empty bar just like I was.
My team began to grow quickly last November. Everyone that started out was told to just warm up with the empty bar. Since January 1stof this year, as a team of roughly 40 lifters, we have missed 2 training days due to pain. These were just minor things that required a couple days of rest. We chose an off day instead of a light day. This is a very low rate.
On more than one occasion someone had started with me and they had some minor pain issues while lifting. Things such as knee pain, minor back pain, and some shoulder pain. These lifters often had extravagant warmups. We removed those extravagant warmups and controlled loads and they felt better.
Movement dysfunction is poorly correlated with pain and injury, so what do we know? We know that high stress levels increase injury risk. This stress can be external and internal. For powerlifting the external stress is the total volume.
Internal stress is how we feel. Many different factors can affect internal stress. How hard training feels is internal stress, and so is any other outside life stressor. If we are overly stressed our injury risk increases.
We need to monitor external and internal stressors with each athlete to keep their injury risk low. This is where the Acute Chronic Work Ratio (ACWR) comes into play. The ACWR monitors internal and external stressors for the athlete.
I keep track of a rolling 28-day average of each athlete’s total volumes. This is that athlete’s fitness level and lets me know what they are capable of handling safely in the gym. The acute workload is this current week’s training.
We want the acute: chronic ratio to be between .80 and 1.30. Anything less or anything higher can increase some risks. Now, that is only the external stressors. I monitor the internal stressors separately.
Upon entering the gym each athlete records how they are feeling. This is a 5-point scale that ranges from fatigued to excited. On top of that, they record the last set RPE for each of the big lifts. This helps me monitor each athlete’s internal stress. This does a decent job of picking up life stressors as well as the stress in the gym.
I do not like using RPEs to determine load on the bar for these reasons. Percentages are very predictable for loads, while RPEs are very unpredictable. When we auto-regulate training we do it in a way that does not allow the ACWR to go above that 1.30 and must coincide with the athlete feeling good upon entering the gym and the effort to not be greater than and RPE 8 on the last set previously in the block.
This assures us as much as possible that we are only increasing the stress of training when it is appropriate. It can also alert me when we may need to pull back a little bit. This part is extremely important to the health of the athlete.
You may be reading this and asking yourself, “My hips are tight, how can I hit depth without mobilizing them?” I am going to tell you that your hips are not tight, your skill level within the lift is just poor. This is where special variations such as pause squats come into play.
Some people do require a bit more of a warmup. They will take the empty bar for the 4 sets, but then 1-3 jumps before 50%, which is where the actual warmups that are written out begin.
I know many coaches and lifters will read this and think I am nuts. However, the literature does not disagree with me. Our injury rates are also far below the normal for the sport of powerlifting.