A Lot Of Words About Variations and How I Utilize Them

Written by: Kevin Cann


I love hearing the perspectives of different coaches.  I had the pleasure of talking with Jason Tremblay of the Strength Guys yesterday for a second time.  We discussed the differences in our programs.


If you do not know who Jason is, you should.  He coaches some absolute monsters that include Taylor Atwood, Eli Burke, Sean Moser, and Owen Hubbard.  As a group I believe the Strength Guys analyze volumes and manage lifter loads better than anyone.


We are very similar in that aspect.  We track volumes of each lifter and attempt to surpass previous best volumes to drive totals.  Load management is a critical factor, the most important factor, in lifter success.


Our differences come with our use of variations.  I use a lot of variations and they do not.  For them they keep it as simple as possible, so they know what works and what doesn’t. Think of the scientific method being applied in real life.  It makes a ton of sense.  The podcast comes out in a couple weeks, listen to it to hear more.


We were also discussing how so many different coaches have seen success doing things very differently. Other coaches try to mimic some of these ways and do not see quite the same success.  I find this to be extremely interesting.


I am not trying to change anyone’s mind about the use of variations.  I think it is a good topic that is not completely understood.  I don’t think they are necessary to get stronger, but in my system they are necessary.


I was fortunate enough to start my powerlifting journey as a coach and an athlete as a student of Boris Sheiko.  There were some foundational things here that were instilled upon me.  For one, I believe technique is the most important aspect of training.


A large portion of my volume came from variations to correct technique.  In fact, approximately 60% of my total volume came from what Sheiko called his special exercises.  These exercises would be executed in the comp stance and comp grip.  It could involve pauses in various positions, accommodating resistance, partial reps, and anything else he felt would help correct my technique issues.


I know technique is another topic that coaches tend to disagree upon.  How important is it really?  Some will argue as long as you are safe and lifting within the rules of the sport you are ok and can get stronger.  This is definitely true as long as your coach has a solid understanding of load management.


My system is set up in a way where we identify areas of technical breakdown and utilize the appropriate variations to fix this.  This worked for Sheiko, so it is good enough for me.  This doesn’t mean that we just lift light, or I yell continuous cues. We push these variations and we see how it helps.


If it helps a little bit, we tweak it a bit either by adjusting the variation, advancing it, or adding weight.  During this time we do not tend to get very far away from our volume baselines.  This is either up or down.  There will be days that are above baseline, days at baseline, and days below baseline for recovery.


The variables I tend to change here are through exercise selection and the sets and reps of those chosen exercises.  As a competition draws near, we will begin to push volumes and the majority of our volume will come from the competition lifts themselves.


Oftentimes when we remove the variations and bring the competition lifts back in, we see a big increase in performance.  This is often without increasing volumes more than previous blocks.  Some variations require much more effort than others and this could be an explanation.  However, I have my theories.


The law of specificity states that the exercises need to be similar in joint angles, forces, and speeds for maximum carryover.  This is usually the argument for using the competition lifts as they are very specific. This is true.


However, we do not take one rep maxes every single time we train, or at least we shouldn’t.  Therefore, the forces are a bit different.  With that said, we know that volume drives results. This is because progressive overload is also important.


We need to provide enough mechanical stress to the lifter to force their body to adapt.  Not all mechanical stress is created equal.  Sets with rep ranges between 3 and 6 with 1 to 4 reps in reserve seem to yield the greatest benefits for strength.  We then need to plan enough sets at those rep ranges to overload the athlete.


Mechanical stress is not the only stress that matters.  A lifter’s perceptions and beliefs are also an important part of physiological adaptation. This is a big rabbit hole to go down, but something that needs to be considered.  If mechanical stress was all that mattered our results would be reproducible every time, but as we all know sometimes, we don’t hit PRs.


With that said, I am not sure overload needs to continuously happen to drive progress.  I feel a certain baseline needs to be maintained and this is different for each lifter.  I also feel we only need to increase volumes slightly more than that current baseline to achieve results.


As the lifter gets new 1RMs we can use those numbers to increase volumes.  The lifter could perform the same number of lifts at the same intensities and volumes will increase.  If the lifter fails to increase their 1RM we need to add more sets.


Variations give us another option.  We can use similar loads but increase effort.  This allows me to hold off on driving volumes and work on some technique things I may feel necessary to clean up.


Variations are more specific to the lift than many people think.  For the deadlift it seems that training status affects quadriceps activity, but style (sumo or conventional) does not affect glutes, hamstrings, adductor, or erector muscle activity.  The only difference is the wider our feet the harder the quads need to work and in a conventional deadlift the calves matter.


This may not make sense at first, but it does when you look at the biomechanics.  The hip extensor moment arm is the length of the femur no matter where you put your feet.  The wider you go, what you lose in the sagittal plane you pick up in the frontal plane.


A conventional puller that has their hips rise before the bar, may need to improve the prelift loading strategies and or strengthen the quads.  Oftentimes we see a lifter pull in a medium stance sumo deadlift and the hips stay down.  This teaches the lifter how to load the weight prelift into the hips and legs and still targets the same muscle group to the same amount, with a little more emphasis on the quads.


This also gives the lifter a different problem to solve under similar conditions as their competition lift.  This can increase motor development and the skill within the lift.  I remember Sheiko talking about variations being a problem to solve for the lifter.


Make them pause in a position where they are not in a strong biomechanical position and they will figure it out.  For the example above a pause 5cm off of the ground would be very hard to hold in that position.  The variation punishes bad positions.


Switching the stance in the example above is a bit different.  Oftentimes the lifter will not be very strong in that opposite stance pull.  However, if we treat this like we would their competition lift we can get some beginner gains out of it.  Fast strength gains are a result of neuromuscular adaptation.  The lifter gets rewarded for learning how to load the weight prelift and use their legs off of the floor.  We bring back the competition deadlift and we tend to see a great improvement in performance, both technique and weight lifted.


The same can be said about the squats.  A change in bar position and foot position appears to have similar quadricep, erector, and glute muscle activity.  A wider stance squat may hit the glutes a bit more.  The hamstrings differ in the squat from the deadlift as they seem to stiffen up to assist the glutes helping the quads and the quads helping the glutes. A lot more needs to be in sync for the squat to work in my opinion.


However, the squat and the deadlift utilize the same muscle groups but requires greater skill than the deadlift and may be less taxing to the lifter.  We can use squat volume to drive deadlift volume.  I like doing this in the offseason to decondition the lifter and give them a break.


Even though squat volume stays around the same if not a bit more, the “lower body” lift volume is much lower.  Remember the muscles used are the same.  When a competition approaches the squats become more specific and the increased deadlift volume can drive squat volume since the muscles are the same.


In the same manner as the deadlifts we can give the lifter different problems to solve.  I use a lot of the Sheiko special exercises here, but I also change bar placement and foot placement a lot.  This comes with a good advantage in my opinion.


The Sheiko special exercises require technique to be perfect to execute them.  However, the variations not in comp stance and bar placement, I don’t care as much about.  I may put a lifter into a wider stance squat to teach them to push their knees out.


I will tell them that is the point of the exercise and have them focus on it.  However, if the knees come in a little bit I don’t care as much. I just want to see conscious effort to not allow that to happen. This means we can load the living shit out of it.  This can help increase overall effort and also increase weekly volumes. ( I can use a more technical exercise at lighter weights on another day to achieve a lower stress day.  A pause halfway up squat at 70% for sets of 4 is very difficult, but load can be below baseline). I work the other variations up to normal training percentages as the comp lifts.   With conscious effort, we bring the feet back into a comp stance and the knees stay out.


The bench is a little trickier as grip affects almost everything.  However, one thing to keep in mind with the bench is all of the prime movers increase in muscle activity with load.  I am a fan of benching heavy frequently for this reason.


I know Dietmar Wolf uses a lot of variations similar to what I have mentioned and states it is for lifter health.  I am not sure that the variations are what leads to a healthy lifter, but they allow for effective load management, which definitely matters for lifter health. Variations are harder than comp lifts and can’t be loaded the same way.  However, the effort can be the same as hard comp lifts.  It allows you to train hard all of the time.


The muscle activity isn’t different enough in the variations to completely sell me on strengthening weak muscles.  I think there is something else there.  I had an epiphany when I realized high bar wide stance squats were helping lifters stay more upright in their comp squats.


There are a little greater thoracic extension demands and perhaps the hip extensors are emphasized more, but more importantly if they pitch forward at all in this variation they will fall over.  It teaches them to keep their hips more under the bar.


Lifters will report feeling their quads a lot more sore on these.  These lifters tend to pitch a bit under heavy loads in their comp squats. The emphasis on the quads is not more in this exercise than the comp squat.  I think it just teaches the lifter how to use them and puts the hamstrings in a really disadvantaged spot to take over like they would in a chest falling forward squat.


I also like allowing the lifter to explore different angles to see where they are strong and where they can improve.  This allows them to be prepared for anything under the barbell.  I do think that training at different angles can help decrease injury risk by increasing each joint’s tolerance of load.


High bar squats have roughly 10 degrees more knee flexion.  Training the knee joint through this ROM, greater than the comp lift makes that tissue there stronger and more able to tolerate loads.


In the end the variations utilize similar loads and forces, we just tweak the angles a little. Difference between high bar and low bar is 1-2 inches.  We move our feet in and out on the squat a couple of inches each side.


Changes in foot position in the deadlift doesn’t change much in the back or hips but puts a little more emphasis on the knee extensors.  That is not a huge difference in the actual movement as the quads are still responsible for breaking the floor in a conventional deadlift in a good position.


Three years under Sheiko taught me that the majority of weaknesses within the lift are skill related. I believe that deep down to my core. It is why I focus so heavily on fixing technique.  Technique may never be perfect, but it allows me as a coach to target what I see as weaknesses within the lift.  I then attack these weaknesses.


This is what I have done in every sport I have played.  We didn’t just play games to get better.  We broke the games down into smaller parts and worked on our individual and team skills within those contexts.  I don’t think powerlifting is any different.

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