Written By: Kevin Cann
I was reading Sheiko’s book this week. If you have not picked it up, I highly recommend it. It is a very thorough write up on the technique and programming for the sport of powerlifting.
I was coached by him for 3 years. However, my knowledge base at the time for the sport was literally nothing. I learned a lot, but my basis for understanding the information I was learning was very minimal.
I thought I understood it more than what I really did. Fast forward 3 plus years and my knowledge base has grown by reading more, watching people lift, lifting myself, and having a strong network of coaches and other professionals that are smarter than I am.
There was one paragraph I was reading where Sheiko stated
“The weakest point of a powerlifter’s technical preparation is the process of acquiring and mastering sports techniques. This is caused by a lack of fundamental and advanced methods of the process. This problem explains the existence of even more blank spots in the understanding of the sports technique. In other words, while advanced powerlifters may be strong and may even have a good knowledge of programming, their deep understanding of programming principles and powerlifting techniques is often very limited.”
When I first started coaching powerlifters, I just followed his instructions and recommendations for average relative intensities, number of lifts, and special exercises to fix certain technical breakdowns. I made sure to use progressive overload of volumes and I saw some pretty good results with this.
However, I also ran into some issues as well. I felt the lifts were too light and the lifters were responding better to higher intensities at times. This is something I still believe. I also noticed that the variations would help technique, but not entirely correct it. I chalked this up to the same issue, the weights were too light to have carryover.
None of this was true. This falls back on my inexperience and lack of understanding of the principles of motor control. This is exactly what that paragraph was stating. I had a thorough understanding of muscles involved at various angles and I was able to communicate what I wanted from my lifters well. This definitely had a positive impact on their technique.
Altering motor control patterns (technique) is much more complex than many people believe. It is not just seeing something and inserting a variation in that slot of the program. This can help a little but is usually inefficient in a number of ways. I feel this is why the majority of people that do not use variations feel they do not work. It is a limited understanding of motor control.
This does not mean you need to use variations to be successful. Many successful coaches, that I respect a lot, do not use variations. Many of these coaches have been much more successful than I have as well.
In order to change technique/motor control we need to create an environment that challenges the expectations and perceptions of the lifter. These expectations and perceptions are not all conscious thought, but also subconscious thought.
Our brain actually predicts sensory feedback and preplans motor control strategies based off of this information. As we go through the movement it interprets the sensory feedback and makes adjustments.
In the beginning when you are learning, the brain has very limited information to draw from. This is why the lift will be executed with limited control and high amounts of variability. Over time the brain uses the sensory feedback to come up with better strategies.
The problem with this is that the brain does not know the technique necessary to lift maximal weights. We need to be able to guide the brain to that planned strategy. Many will argue that the person will figure out what works best for them over time.
The problem with this, is the best strategy at this time, may not be what is best for the long term. I do believe in allowing the person to self-organize technique, but I also believe there is a way to lift that yields greater success.
The differences in individuals will be grip, stance width, toe angle, and maybe some subtle changes in bar placement on the squat. However, the technique other than that will be pretty much the same.
I am not going to go into detail on that technique here for time reasons. However, as a coach we need to identify what each position of the lift should look like. From there we need to identify where breakdowns are occurring and identify the most important ones. This is a skill that comes with experience.
Once we identify the technical breakdown, we need to setup the training environment to correct it. This is not only picking the right exercise. It is also about picking the correct intensity and the correct volume. On top of those things the lifter’s mood, beliefs, and confidence levels all play a role in the execution of the lift.
We also need to identify when an exercise may not be working to our benefit. We also need to do all of this while still hitting baseline volumes so that the lifter does not get weaker. This is no easy task.
We need to do enough to alter the brain’s perception and preplanned organization of the motor task. This means addressing all of the matters that I mentioned above. The rate at which people respond to these changes also depends on the individual.
This all starts with effective communication with the lifter. They need to know what I am looking for and the purpose of each exercise. I want to educate each lifter as much as possible. Effective communication is also important so that they understand how psychological factors affect technique and strength.
If confidence is holding a lifter back, we need to address this and work on this as much as possible in the gym. From there we pick exercises to fix these issues and take out ones that might work against us. In some cases this means removing the competition lift for a period of time in favor of an alternate stance or other variations.
This time period where we remove it, we remove its ability to hinder changes from happening. Our brain has a preplanned response for this lift and every time we do it, it can reinforce the old pattern we are attempting to change. There is also a loss in technique that occurs from removing it that can be improved upon when it comes back into the program. These improvements can be difficult to make when the lift is left in there for a prolonged period of time due to adaptive resistance.
We need to put the right exercises in the program with the correct volumes and intensities. From there we need to watch how the lifter responds. I have variations that I go to to fix certain technique issues, but not everyone responds to them the same way.
I will often see a variation help a little bit in a block, but not to the same affect as I would hope. From there I may alter the variation in a way to elicit a better response. Once that change is made, I will again go back to observing how the lifter responds throughout the block.
At this point the comp lift may or may not have been put back into the program. If it hasn’t, we will bring it back in and see what it looks like and reassess where we are at. From this reassessment a new wave of exercises will come back in and we repeat the process.
Depending on the level of the lifter, as an important competition draws near, we accept technique for what it is, and the majority of the volume comes from competition lifts. I will push volumes at this point to a peak and then volume will drop off as the competition approaches. After the competition we will repeat the entire process.
Under heavy weights we will always see some breakdown. This could be a loss of speed, change in torso angle, and many other factors including psychological. We will never achieve perfect form, but instead it is a lifelong attempt to get there. This is how we develop steady progress in lifters.
We are not just a bag of muscles. Motor control tasks are extremely complex, even more simple ones like in the sport of powerlifting. However, it is still a sport and the appropriate drills need to be planned in practice in order to achieve success in competitions.