Self-Organizing Technique Doesn’t Mean Lifting Technique Doesn’t Matter

Written by: Kevin Cann


A little over 3 years ago I started powerlifting.  I was fortunate enough to have one of the greatest coaches of all-time as my coach. From day 1 with Boris Sheiko technique was drilled into me as being the most important aspect of training.


I did not understand what this entailed at the time.  I was familiar with some of his go to exercises to fix certain technical breakdowns within certain positions of each lift.  On top of that I followed the recommended volumes and average intensities that he laid out.


I started coaching an intern at the place I worked and messed around with this stuff.  I was also gaining experience lifting under Sheiko and asking questions.  This was successful with this lifter, very.  After that first year, I had a few more lifters and saw equally as good success.


As I gained more lifters, and some of the others were with me for longer, I noticed some problems. Technique may look good under submaximal weights, but the breakdowns would occur under the heavier ones. Lifters got really nervous when 90% or more were put on the bar.


There were times that my belief in this system waivered quite a bit.  The problem with the system wasn’t with the system itself, it was with me. My lifters in the beginning saw good success because I followed some general rules of powerlifting and motor control.


However, in order to get continued steady progress from my lifters my understanding of these principles and how to apply them needs to get better.  I understood this and I know that for a couple of them making their way up the rankings, they need a coach that is capable of coaching someone at that level.  This is what drives me to continue to learn more and more.


I spent a lot of time analyzing the lifts and figuring out which muscles were most important at various angles.  I tried to use variations that would target those muscle groups more heavily.  Then something happened a couple of months ago.


I was beginning to notice that high bar wide stance squats were fixing a lot of pitching issues in the squat.  This made very little sense to me.  Why was this working better than an exercise such as pin squats?  Pitching in the squat is weak quads isn’t it?  Wide stance squats puts equal or less emphasis on the quads and more on the glutes.


This does not make sense. Knee extension demands are greatest at depth and hip extension demands are higher later in the squat.  Then a light bulb clicked.  I had been looking at the wrong things the entire time.


We are not just biomechanical machines, or a bag of muscles.  We are a complex system that combines many other complex systems to display strength and skill.  Strength is actually a skill.  This led me down a rabbit hole of researching some theories on motor control.


I stumbled upon Dynamic Systems Theory and Nonlinear Pedagogy.  I began reading some studies on this stuff and it was just making so much sense.  I then began reading the Sheiko book.  In this book he mentions this motor control theory.


This explained why high bar wide stance squats was fixing the pitching problems in the squat.  It also explained why technique was breaking down at greater than 90% of 1RM for my lifters.  The high bar wide stance squats force the lifter to stay upright.


If the lifter pitches even a little bit, they will have to quickly get the hips back under the bar or they will fall over.  Confidence affects technique.  If a lifter is scared of weights, they will see breakdowns at those heavier weights.


Sheiko coaches the likes of Alexi Nikulin in Russia.  This 82.5kg lifter passed out on a second squat attempt of 764lbs (raw with knee sleeves).  He broke both wrists due to the bar falling off of his back.  He came out and smoked it on his 3rd.  This is a different mentality from the lifters I coach.


What the DST says is that the lifter is preplanning motor control strategies based off of past experiences, interactions with the environment, and perceptions and beliefs about the lift.  Once the lift starts the brain is constantly analyzing sensory feedback and makes the appropriate adjustments.


As a coach we need to take all of these aspects into consideration.  We also need to take general strength principles into consideration. We still need adequate volumes and average intensities to get stronger.


We need BOTH for maximal results.  You can get very good results from just touching upon a few pieces.  I saw this in the beginning.  However, for long term continued success I believe the coach needs a very high understanding of how to apply both.  This is what separates Sheiko from everyone else.


Coaches have been throwing around the term “self-organizing” to explain how everyone’s technique will be different.  This is true it will.  Every rep from the same person will also be different.  However, we know that certain positions are more optimal to push more weights.


The differences in technique comes from things such as stance width and toe flail.  The coach should be putting the lifter in the best position for them to obtain these more optimal positions.


Our job as coaches is to create an environment that guides the lifter towards that optimal technique while also applying general strength principles.  This takes extremely high-level coaching.  I have much to learn to get to this level.


Some things that I have learned recently.  For one, everyone learns differently.  I have go to exercises to fix technical issues in each of the lifts.  They tend to work at varying levels for each person. I watch each person lift and I adjust the variation in a way that fits that person better and allows them a greater learning experience.


Skill development is not linear.  I have been picking variations and using weekly linear progressions to push them throughout a block.  This is not appropriate.  This works, but it can be better.  Sheiko did not use weekly linear progressions with me and it only started making sense to me recently.


I am not being so rigid to following the program.  Instead I write the program as a blueprint to guide my decisions.  I have built in monitoring tools to help this decision-making process.  However, I will adapt daily to the lifter.


For example, yesterday Doug had triples at 80% which is 335lbs.  He took the first set and said the weight feels very heavy.  However, it was very fast.  We scratched the plan.  We put 30 more pounds on the bar and after a triple with it we did an AMRAP where he got 7 reps.


A situation like this gets his confidence back on the squats and teaches him to not let his feelings dictate training and to trust his strength.  If I don’t do this, who knows where that negative thought pattern on squats will stop.


Everything has a time and place.  It is learning where and when to use it.  This is the art of coaching and it only comes with an understanding of both general strength principles as well as the principles of motor control and blends it with the experience of a well know ledged coach.  This takes time, but we will get there.

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