Dynamic Systems Theory and Powerlifting: Why I Use Variations

Written by: Kevin Cann


I am writing this article to get some thoughts down on paper.  I am the type of person that wants to know why things work.  I enjoy having conversations with coaches that do things very differently than myself.  This is how we progress and grow.


When I first started regularly talking to Ryan Gleason and Zac Cooper, I used far less variation than I do now.  The variations I used were the Sheiko special exercises that always used competition foot and bar placement, grip, and pulling style.


They challenged me to try some other exercises and I did with some very good success.  I now will perform opposite stance deadlifts as the only deadlift in a whole block.  This is a far cry from what I used to do.  I will explain why very shortly.


Last week I had a long talk with Jason Tremblay of the Strength Guys.  This conversation really got my wheels turning.  The Strength Guys have had much more success than me and they do things very differently.


We both believe that tracking volumes and average intensities is critical to athlete progress.  However, how we manage those volumes and intensities is very different.  TSG doesn’t use variations like I do.  It is a very well laid out DUP plan with the competition lifts.


The less variables in training, the easier it is to track and assess.  This is basically the scientific method being practiced in real life. Change one thing at a time and see how it affects the lifter.  This is clearly a very successful way of doing things.


During this conversation I was questioning myself a bit.  Not in a bad way, but in a way that challenges my thinking.  Why do I use variations?  Is volume all that matters to getting better?  These were a couple of the questions I was writing down to think about.


I don’t think volume is the only thing that matters in terms of lifter progress.  We are more than a simple algebra problem.  Volume is based only on mechanical stress.  If mechanical stress was all that mattered, we would be able to predict and reproduce results.


For example, if 10,000lbs of added volume yielded a 5% strength gain in one block, it should do the exact same thing in each subsequent block.  However, we know this isn’t true.  This does not mean that volume is not important, it absolutely is, but may be for other reasons than just mechanical stress, like motor control.


We know we need to overload the athlete for them to get stronger.  However, I looked back at my 3 years of training with Sheiko.  I had blocks that lasted 4-6 months at times where my volumes didn’t spike at any point.


The results of some of these blocks were some of the best progress I made.  These were beyond beginner gain periods as well.  I then thought about my 20ish weeks with Jeremy Hartman.  My volumes are much lower, but my squat and deadlift progress seems to be going very well.


We can overload the athlete in a number of ways.  We can overload them with more volume.  We can also overload them with more intensity.  We can also overload their efficiency.  We can improve technique and performing more reps with technical efficiency overloads this efficiency.  This overloading of efficiency creates a stable movement pattern that is harder to breakdown under heavier weights.


Hartman encouraged me to continue experimenting with things in the gym.  I started to use high bar wide stance squats quite a bit.  I initially was using this variation to teach lifters how to “push their knees out” in the squat.


It definitely helped with that quite a bit, but there was something else that this variation was correcting, and that was the pitching forward out of the hole on the squat. From a mechanical perspective this made absolutely no sense to me.


At the bottom of the squat knee extension demands are highest.  This means that the quads need to be strong enough to get that weight moving. If they aren’t the lifter will shift that weight to the hamstrings and pitch forward.


However. The high bar wide stance squats puts equal or less demands on the quads and more on the hip extensors like the glutes.  Hip extension demands are highest about halfway up in a competition squat, but at the bottom the hip extension demands are higher in a squat than they are in a deadlift, but still are not the primary movers in this position.


Even if the glutes were responsible for keeping the lifter upright out of the hole, they are not getting stronger like that in a 4-week block.  Quick increases in performance like that are nervous system driven.


If the lifter pitches forward at all in this variation, they need to quickly rectify it.  If they don’t, they will fall over.  This experience gets noted by the nervous system and will help predict future sensory feedbacks within similar movements.


The brain actually predicts sensory feedback before it experiences it.  This is one aspect that separates elite athletes from novice athletes, their ability to predict this feedback to overcome it.  In the squat example above the brain learns that if the lifter pitches forward too much they will fall over.


We bring the competition lift back in and the brain uses this data to compute expectations for the lift. This happens in both conscious and unconscious states.  The brain predicts that if the lifter falls forward out of the hole they can fall forward and lose balance.  It then alters motor commands to rectify this.


As the lifter squats the brain is interpreting the sensory feedback of the lift.  If it senses the pitching forward, it will draw upon the experience of the variation to quickly rectify that issue.  If this happens this is usually an improvement from what it looked like before.


This is my understanding of the Dynamic Systems Theory (DST).  The brain has expectations for what the lift should “feel” like.  This again happens at both the conscious and unconscious levels.  This is one explanation of how your expectations become part of your physiology, whether pain or performance.


Variations can alter those expectations and help us come up with better motor control patterns.  I believe there is a best way to lift for optimal performance.  In the squat, hips and shoulders rising together should happen for everyone.  If it doesn’t, we will fix it.  I also believe the knees caving in is a loss of control.  We will attack that to get better.


We do this by altering the environment in ways to create these experiences with the lifter to draw upon. This also plays a role when things go bad.  What if the lifter pitches forward on a very heavy third attempt squat?  If they don’t have experiences to draw upon once the brain receives this sensory feedback they may not have the ability to finish the lift.


I have lifters use box squats to train this position.  They do not sit on the box, they just touch it, but they push the hips back harder than they normally do.  They have to drive the hips forward and chest back off of the box.  This gives them that experience to pull from if the brain receives sensory feedback that the lifter is in this position.


I am still learning more about this stuff.  I like giving my lifters the variability to explore different positions and movements. Find the positions where the lifter may be “weaker” and attack it.  I often will do this while I remove the exercise that shows the breakdown I am trying to fix.


If we keep that exercise in the program and practice “bad” repetitions it can make it more difficult to rectify it as that is already the preferred motor control pattern and we just continue practicing it.  This engrains it even further.  This even means I will remove the competition lifts for a period of time far out from competition.


Ultimately we want to alter the environment to make predictable changes.  As I said in a conversation with Jason last night, I believe a DUP program only utilizing the competition lifts does this.  Changing intensities and repetition schemes is variability.


It comes down to how important technique is to the coach.  3 years under Sheiko and I believe that technique is what drives training. The Eastern Europeans believe that breakdowns are not from weak muscles but lack of neuromuscular control.  My experiences have led me to believe that this is true.


That person with the pitching in the squat doesn’t have weak quads typically.  They can usually leg press more than they can squat.  I am not sure the leg press even has any carryover as strengthening the quads in a non-squat pattern probably doesn’t carryover.  This is why the majority of volume needs to come from the competition lifts.


The variations need to be ones that have an outcome on the competition lifts.  With an experienced coach this outcome will be more predictable and will not be a guess.  This is probably why many coaches do not use variations as much.  They were guessing which ones would result in changes without looking at the motor control aspects of the lift.


Coaches like Sheiko and Dietmar Wolf use a lot of variations in their programs.  I think this is because they focus on the motor control, or technique strategies of the lifts as opposed to just strength.  A program with limited variations and focused on overloading volumes is one in which the primary focus is strength over technique.


Both are highly successful as we have seen from Sheiko and Wolf and coaches such as Jason and the Strength Guys.  I think ultimately it comes down to how the coach creates a system based off of these principles.


I have run into problems in the past when I would get away from my core beliefs that technique is important and only focus on strength.  That is not how my system works.  If TSG tried to use all variations it would throw off their data and their program.


Just because we do things differently it doesn’t mean we cannot get along and learn from one another. Talking to Jason led to me reading more on motor control.  My discussions with Zac Cooper, Ryan Gleason, Arian Khemesi, Jeremy Hartman, and Nick Guidice have helped me progress my system over time to keep getting results from my lifters.

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