Understanding Progress: It Is Not Always Weight on the Bar

Written by: Kevin Cann


Between Nationals and a local competition coming up on November 3rd, I have watched 20 athletes test and prepare for competition.  All of these athletes are at different places within their lifting careers.


Some have been lifting longer than others, some are stronger than others, and so on.  I have mentioned this before, but I categorize every lifter’s lifts as the following:


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


Technique is the most important aspect of training to me.  If you have poor technique, that becomes a priority no matter how strong you are. If you are a beginner, I don’t mind forcing you to take a step back and make some corrections.  This may mean that your lift actually goes backwards.


In this case we are taking a step backwards for multiple steps forward.  A more elite lifter is a bit trickier.  We need to find some middle ground so that the lift does not go backwards and still makes more improvements.  This is a skill of a top-level coach for sure.  I myself struggle with this area.


The majority of my lifters are what I label as “developmental.”  I actually prefer this.  I don’t care about getting people that are already strong.  I enjoy starting with someone and developing them into a more elite lifter.  I get as excited when these lifters hit benchmark lifts as they do.  It is fun.


Coaching elite lifters is fun as well, but in a very different way.  I am fortunate enough that the elite lifters I coach have been with me for quite some time now and weren’t elite when they started.  We have developed strong relationships and watching them achieve goals is pretty awesome.


With the majority of my lifters not being elite, there are many things we need to work on to get them there.  The most important one is technique.  For one, technique is important for lifter health.


I don’t necessarily believe that biomechanics dictates injury risk.  However, I do feel poor technique gives the lifter a smaller amount of volume they can handle.  This opinion is nothing more than logical to me.


If we pull a deadlift with the knees almost straight off of the floor our back is lifting the majority of the load.  If we bend or knees and get the legs more involved, the load is distributed amongst the legs and the back.  Having more muscles taking more of the load just allows the lifter to tolerate more volume.


Better technique also means better performance.  In the example above the lifter using their legs with their back will be able to lift more weight because more muscles are contributing.  If you lift with poor technique you can get pretty strong, but your ceiling in what you are capable of lifting will be much lower.


This is often difficult for lifters to take in at first.  No one wants to see their lifts go backwards in this sport.  However, if you aren’t competing for a national championship it is probably worth it.  Even then, I still think it is worth it, but you need to do things a bit differently.


America doesn’t develop lifters.  America has lifters that played other sports, or lifters that were picked last in dodgeball, so they lift weights and got pretty strong.  America does well on the world stage, but the fast peak and fast drop-off in total that we tend to experience tells me some things are lacking.


Eastern Bloc countries actually develop lifters.  From a young age every child begins with gymnastics to learn basic movements. From there they have years and years of GPP work with things such as box jumps, kettlebell swings, and so on. From there they go on to specialize in the sport of powerlifting.


They build that big base with GPP work.  Once they begin to pick up a barbell, technique is drilled into them.  In the initial days of learning a squat they may do 5 sets of 3 reps of just walking out the barbell and then getting back to more GPP work.


As a coach I need to find ways to get all of this stuff in with lifters later in life and sometimes after some poor technique has been trained for quite some time.  This can be a real challenge, but a really fun challenge.


I was fortunate enough to work with Boris Sheiko for 3 years.  He has many great special exercises to help correct technique. This is especially true for the squat. We had 4 top 25 squats in the country this year and I truly believe it was due to the technique and programming that I learned from him.


I believe the deadlift and bench are a bit different in needs.  This is where we see some more muscle weaknesses play a role and perhaps technique is not quite as important here as it is with the squat (but still important!).  Bench has started to come up more with my team the more we blast triceps and shoulders. More targeted GPP work seems to be appropriate here as well as for the back and quads for both the squats and deadlifts.


The offseason is a time we can really work on building that base.  We will never get 10 years like the Eastern Europeans, but we can chip away. If we spend 1 month even after each meet, and we compete 3 times a year, that is 3 months every year of building that base.  Over a career it can really add up.


We should always be focusing on perfecting technique.  I use a lot of Sheiko’s special exercises here, but also targeted accessory work, and varying stance and grip to target different muscles.  I truly believe that Americans need more variations than lifters in other countries.


As a meet draws near, the variations can go away, and the comp lift volume can increase.  At some point leading into a meet technique is what it is, and you got to just train.  Once the competition is completed, we go back to work on correcting things and repeat the whole process all over again.

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