Understanding Plateaus from a Skills Perspective

Written by: Kevin Cann


Plateau is most likely the second dreaded word in powerlifting behind injury.  A plateau is bound to happen to every single lifter at some point.  Chances are some “Blast Through Your Plateau” articles are not going to help them.


I haven’t hit a bench PR in almost 2 years.  I am hoping to change that on Sunday with a small 2.5kg increase.  This would still be lower than my gym best.  It isn’t like I haven’t had coaches that don’t know what they were doing.


Kerry hit a small 2.5kg PR on her deadlift at Nationals in Orlando.  That is the only increase she has had on her deadlift in about 2 years. She has hit 350lbs in the gym, but we can’t reproduce it on the platform.  A change in bodyweight may explain it, but it is not the whole picture.


With Kerry we have tried increasing volumes, increasing intensities, lowering weights to fix technique, lots of variations, no variations, and even praying.  None of it has worked.  This has been extremely frustrating for the both of us.


We have been lucky enough to increase the other lifts enough to get that top 10 finish at Nationals. However, we need this deadlift to come up if we want to chase a podium spot in Chicago.  Something Kerry is more than capable of.


I have made it a point to dive deep into the understanding of skill acquisition.  My coaches have always emphasized technique as being very important.  Your technique is definitely a skill.  Strength is also a skill.  We can’t just address the mechanical stress aspect of it.


My issues with coaching Kerry was I was separating the 2 of them, skill and mechanical stress.  I would increase volume and intensity without addressing technique, or I would address technique without adequate mechanical stress.  Both are important to get stronger.


Kerry definitely needs to improve technique.  Kerry is an elite 52kg lifter.  Altering the coordination patterns of someone with this amount of skill in the sport is not easy.  I don’t think I understood the concepts fully before.  I may not understand the concepts fully now, but I definitely have a better understanding.


When someone of this skill level does not get better with repetitive practice, we have a situation where the lifter is stuck in what is referred to as a deep attractor state. Attractors are the stable and functional patterns of the person.


Kerry’s stable pattern on the deadlift is the knees being too straight and back rounding off of the floor.  Training can look much better, even with heavier weights, but once we hit 315lbs we see Kerry revert back to this stable state.


She could do multiple triples at 300lbs that use a lot of her legs off of the floor and everything moves together nicely.  Somehow a single at 15lbs more causes that to go back to the less than ideal technique. This poor technique has somehow become too stable within Kerry.


I need to figure out how to destabilize this pattern and make the body choose another attractor state. This is no easy task because of how stable this pattern is it literally weakens other coordination patterns that are similar to it.


There are 2 ways that we can approach this.  We can force a lot of variability on Kerry.  Theoretically the movement variability will weaken the strong attractor state and allow the body to transition to another one.


My job as a coach is to alter training that discourages the poor technique.  To do this I widened her feet on the deadlift.  Harder to round over and not use your legs here.  In the past when I attempted to fix technique, I want each rep to look perfect.  I need to encourage her to do what she normally does but find a way to alter her positions that forces her to perform with the better technique.


To quote “Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints Led Approach” by Keith Davids, Chris Button, and Simon Bennett:


“It may take some time for this approach to lead to long-term changes in behavior but given the amount of time invested in stabilizing the original technique, this should come as no surprise.”


In this case you just need to be patient.  Everyone learns at different rates.  A blessing in disguise here may be Kerry tweaking her back a bit.  It is nothing serious as she is still training, and we probably could push it hard if we wanted.  However, nothing is at stake at the Arnold, so we are going to work on some things and build it up to the meet.


This will be a good starting point moving forward.  Experiencing pain may give us a chance as it alters Kerry’s perceptions and emotions. Oftentimes after injuries we see the performer come back with a greater skill set.


To steal a quote from my dude Steph Allen DPT from a study by Walker published in 2007:


“…some athletes may recover beyond their pre-injury status either physically, psychologically, or both. After enduring the challenge of a long rehabilitation period, athletes may be more dedicated, focused, mentally tough, and may be physically stronger than they were pre-injury via the intensive strengthening activities required in rehabilitation.”


Kerry is already strong and is not in need of a long rehab, but the changes in emotions can have a positive effect.  I know for me when I am in pain, I become more focused on the task at hand.  I tell myself no mistakes or something bad can happen. I trust in my abilities to do this.


The other way we can attack this is by restricting the current movement.  The example in the text above looks at a tennis player.  If we wanted to discourage a two-handed backhand, we could make the athlete hold a ball in one hand.  This only allows them to use one hand to swing the racquet.


The problem with this is we can’t just not deadlift.  Kerry pulls sumo.  If I make her only pull conventional it reinforces her wanting to use more back than legs. This doesn’t mean we avoid this pattern though, but that is a different discussion.


I actually think pain can be a good constraint temporarily.  If the poor technique leads to pain it may force the body to find a better attractor state.  We need to be encouraging here and explain this is just temporary and her back is strong so that we don’t get into more trouble down the road, but for now this may force the body to choose another state, weakening the deep rooted one.


If possible, we will use this time to push a wide stance sumo deadlift where she will be required to use more legs and less back.  This does take away from her strengths in the pull a bit, but I believe it will be worth it. She squats 292lbs at 52kg, her legs are very strong as well.  I also think if we fix this it can lead to a healthier long-term training as she will handle more volumes if she uses more joints and muscles.  If she continues to use primarily back muscles, we will only deadlift one day per week because the load tolerance is less.


She will not like deadlifting one time a week so maybe that will force change in positions.  I would love to push the lifts at all points, but I kind of like Kerry so we will keep her upright as much as possible.


When you hit a plateau it fucking sucks.  I believe finding a good coach right from the start is critical for these situations. I never would have let Kerry pull in those positions from the beginning.  She pulled 300lbs in her first meet with lifters in that position. This is the one time her strength has probably worked against her.


I think I am better armed as a coach to address these issues now and she is a better lifter.  If not, we will just squat a world record.

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