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.

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