Task Constraints in Powerlifting: Where Variation Meets Specificity

Written by: Kevin Cann


In the 1960s, a Russian scientist named Bernstein warned against splitting up the neurophysiology and biomechanical aspects of movement.  He explained that each does not exist without the other.


Fast forward to modern day and almost all of our research is either or.  The majority of the research that I see is some EMG analysis of lifts looking at what muscles are involved at given times throughout the range of motion.


Not that this research isn’t useful, it is, but it is a very small piece of a much larger picture.  I saw a study performed on 12 powerlifters using the Safety Squat Bar.  The EMG analysis showed it had greater activation of the upper back muscles, but lower activation of some of the leg muscles as well as the abs.


I do not like this bar in training at all.  The fact that the EMG showed this, as well as a 11% decrease in loads used (probably why the muscle activation was less than a straight bar), I thought it defended my stance.  It does somewhat, but not the whole story.


As a coach sometimes you see things that you just know aren’t right.  It might even just be a gut feeling.  Trying to understand these gut feelings is how we learn.  I knew that the safety squat bar was not giving me the desired effects like other variations.


I see a study like the one presented, and it immediately makes sense.  However, when I jump to that conclusion, I fall into the same trap that Bernstein warned of.  We are not just a bag of muscles.  We are far more complex than that.


The more I learn about motor control, the more I learn that Bernstein was right.  Lifting with a Safety Squat Bar is a completely different skill, and for this reason I do not like it in my programming.


I would have liked to have known how familiar the lifters in that study were with the SSB.  Perhaps the decrease in weight used was just due to their lack of familiarity with it.  This is not a reason I feel this bar should be used, but the exact opposite. Perhaps with better skill, the muscle activation would have been different.  In my experiences most people squat less with the SSB, but who knows.


If these are experienced powerlifters shouldn’t they be able to do a similar movement as their sport asks them too?  If these lifters aren’t familiar with it and it requires them to use less weight to figure out, then how much carryover would there be the other way?


Another recent study had showed that 1RMs were very similar for the same lifter regardless of foot stance width.  This tells me that close stance and wide stance squats each builds the competition squat because the absolute loads are similar.  The movement is similar enough to have carryover.


Now, some people claim that the SSB had benefits for them and I have seen lifters that struggled with changing their foot position in the squat.  However, these are most definitely outliers in my experiences.


If anything this is an example of the principle of individual differences.  Everyone learns a little bit differently and we are learning a skill at the end of the day.  I feel that the skill of the SSB does not carry over to the skill of the competition squat as much as other options.


It is a different movement. The weight feels differently on your back, it sits in a very different spot, and your arms are held by your sides. I also feel the same way about front squats.  The weight sits differently, and the movement feels very different.


With high bar squats and moving the feet around we are using the same equipment that we compete with. We are just tweaking the movement in a very slight way to achieve a desired effect from the lifter.


Playing soccer if I had used a smaller or larger ball in training it would have altered my mechanics to adjust to the difference.  This would not have necessarily been a good thing to do in practice.  The specialty bars are similar to this in my opinion.


A high bar squat keeps everything the same as the competition squat.  The only difference is the bar is a couple of inches higher on their back. This increases the thoracic extension demands and forces the lifter to stay a bit more upright.  You also will not get away with as much pitching forward out of the hole.  However, at the end of the day it feels very similar to the competition movement.


Using a straight bar here has much more carryover in my opinion than using the SSB.  This is why the eye of the coach is important.  The coach needs to be able to watch the lifter and devise a plan in the gym to put them in positions so that they learn how to squat for optimal performance.


The use of variations with the intent of teaching the athlete a skill is known as task constraints. We are more often than not putting the lifter in a position that punishes bad technique.  In powerlifting we are limited to what constraints we can change.  This has opened the door for specialty bars and other devices to be sold.


We need to make sure the task constraints that we put in training have the desired effect and carryover that we are looking for.  All too often when someone has a technical issue in the lift there is a standard answer that is found on the internet.


This may work for you and it may not.  I have been fucking around with variations to improve technique ever since I started training powerlifters.  I am only now beginning to develop a strong grasp of how to alter the tasks in the gym for the desired effects.


Some things that we can alter are the equipment.  I think there may be some benefits to training without a belt and sleeves.  I think many people have this unsubstantiated belief that their equipment helps them lift more weight.  The belt helps, but probably not as much as you think. The knee sleeves don’t give you anything, no matter how tight they get.


Switching to flats may put a higher emphasis on the quads in the literature.  Maybe this has some carryover, but why not just high bar squat in your competition shoes?  I always wore my equipment in practice for other sports.


The other way we can alter equipment is with specialty bars.  Like I stated before I don’t believe using these leads to transferable skills to the competition lift.  The skill to utilize them is very different.


Load matters.  What I have realized over time is that in order for carryover to be seen in the competition lift the weight lifted matters. Just practicing good technique with light weights does not just transition to having the same technique under heavier weights.


We need to keep this in mind when we are utilizing variations.  This is why I like altering foot position.  Most people can lift somewhere in the same ballpark as they can with a comp stance.  Most people can also handle weights around 80% for reps with high bar squats and the combo of high bar squats and changing foot position.


If the loads lifted are too light for carryover, we need to make adjustments to the other days, or decide if it is even worth it to keep in the program.  The skill level of the lifter and the training age is a big part of this. A beginner I do not mind lifting light weights with opposite stance deadlifts for a while, but someone more elite this may yield a loss in strength that is not worth it.


During this time period we can alter angles of the squat to more mimic the competition deadlift and we can push squat intensity a bit since similar muscles are utilized.  You see, biomechanics matters, but it is not the only thing.


We need to balance the biomechanics with the neurophysiological (which includes psychological) into a coherent path where the outcome is the best total possible. This also means adapting the program on a day to day basis.


The weight used also changes the environment.  This is why we see breakdowns in technique at heavier weights.  This is also why the task constraints we put in training need to be performed under heavier loads.


This does not mean that the lifter needs to be handle heavier loads right away with these variations. We need to practice them a bit and prepare for the heavier weights.  Standard linear periodization can work very well here.


We also need adequate amounts of volume.  The general strength principles still apply to all of this.  We need a certain baseline level of volume to get stronger.  At the appropriate times we need to stress this baseline a bit.


I tend to do this more on a daily basis than a weekly one.  There will be high stress days, medium, and low stress days.  I tend to stress intensity with the same number of lifts in the off season and as a meet draws near we increase total volume and the amount of competition lifts performed increases.  You can’t just drive volumes year-round.


The offseason is a good time to add variation and allow the athlete to self-organize technique.  It is also a good time to destabilize previous movement patterns that the coach may deem inefficient.


During this time we can alter the constraints of training to overload efficiency and increase learning. Some variations are harder than others. Also, some variations create a response, but need to be adjusted to each individual lifter to cater to their individual learning experience.


This might mean having a pause on the halfway up in a high bar wide stance squat.  We could drive high bar wide stance squats through a block to try to improve pitching and knees caving in.  It may improve some, but the coach may see room for more improvement.


We don’t just ditch the exercise, but we adjust it and watch what happens.  I used to interject more than I do now.  I give feedback and cues to remind the lifter what to focus on.  I also adjust the weight on the bar.  I do not want training to be too light or too heavy.


I also need to take into consideration lifter confidence when picking weights.  Often, I will see a lifter registering high RPEs for sets that look very easy.  This tells me that we need to alter the environment to work on confidence.  This doesn’t come from turning on the Rocky soundtrack.


When I see this, I will put the lifter in uncomfortable situations with heavier weights and we will build confidence this way.  This is delicate as missed repetitions can further decrease the lifter’s confidence. Usually their belief in me as their coach and having side spots and the support of the team can help alter these perceptions and increase confidence.


In these situations it is not weak muscles leading to technical breakdowns in the lift, but the lack of confidence.  You cannot separate the neurophysiological and the biomechanical as they exist together. One thing all elite athletes have in common is their confidence and belief in themselves.


The job of the coach is to guide this process taking all of these aspects into consideration.  From there we need to put the lifters in the correct environment to elicit the wanted changes in technique.


It is also the job of the coach to watch and make the necessary adjustments on a day to day basis. This is not a plug and play scenario where you see something wrong occur and there is a one size fits all approach to fixing it.


It also takes time. Let the lifter play around a bit and see how it improves over the span of a few weeks.  From here reassess and start the process over.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s