A Constraints Led Approach to Powerlifting: Knees Caving In

Written by: Kevin Cann


I know in my last article I said I would answer some questions that I posed.  I decided to answer them in a podcast that should be out this week instead.  Instead I am going to show an example of a constraints led coaching approach in the sport of powerlifting.


A constraints led approach is more of a hands-off coaching method, where the coach manipulates constraints to guide the lifter down the appropriate path.  This is a learner centered process.  There are 3 constraints that we deal with:


  1. The Lifter
  2. The Environment
  3. The Task


There aren’t many constraints we can change on the lifter within this sport.  The lifter’s skeletal makeup, genetic makeup, are set in stone. However, there are a few things we can do here.  The lifter’s perceptions and beliefs need to be taken into consideration, but the lifter is a constraint that is difficult to adjust.


The environment is another constraint that is difficult to alter.  However, building a specific training culture at PPS is a priority of mine. Having a fun and hardworking training environment is definitely helpful for success.  This is why I encourage my online lifters to come down in person as often as they can.


Most of the environmental constraints we deal with are out of our control.  The temperatures fluctuate greatly in the gym, the floor may not be even, and people may walk in front of you.  These things may occur at a meet, so they aren’t bad.  I think the only environmental constraint I would worry about is always squatting in the same rack looking at the same thing.


The last constraint we can alter is the actual task.  This is the easiest constraint for the coach to change.  This is where exercise variation comes into play.  You can also alter the equipment used here as well.  I am going to breakdown a specific situation of using this model.


Daniel Lau started with me about 6 months ago.  When he started his best squat was 455lbs and he would get pretty consistent knee pain while squatting.  I adjusted a few things such as head position and foot position and watched him lift for a few weeks.


Daniel’s right knee would cave in consistently when squatting.  Some coaches believe this is a technical flaw and others do not think this is a big deal.  Two each their own here.  I see a position in which we need to improve.  That is how my system works.


We started with what I call 1.5 squats.  Daniel assumes his competition stance, goes down to depth, comes halfway up, back down to depth, and then all of the way up.  This variation slows the lifter down and forces them to spend some extra time where the breakdown is occurring.


From here I sit back and watch.  These weights are lighter due to difficulty, but it is a good start as it builds some volume.  From there we did some high bar wide stance squats.  This variation really exaggerates that technical fault.  It also puts more emphasis on the hips here, which may need some strengthening.


This looked good, but not perfect.  From there we performed high bar wide stance squats with a pause on the halfway up. This slowed him down in a position that really exaggerates that technical fault.  We built this up a bit.


Once we built that variation up, we put the bar lower on the back and kept the wide stance.  With the bar lower and no pause, we can really start loading this up.  Last night he hit 425lbs for 2 sets of 4 reps.  Over this period of time Daniel has added 40lbs to his squat.  He has hit 495lbs multiple times now in training. 425lbs is 85% of that new max for sets of 4.  Now we can turn a weakness into a strength and should be able to squeeze out some more weight on that squat before his competition in April.


There was a 5-week period of time where I removed the competition squat from Daniel’s program all together and the variations I chose were based off of what I saw and my intuition on what I feel will help him.


I treat strength as a skill. When we are developing skills, we need to understand how this development occurs.  Daniel came in with a stable movement pattern of a squat where the right knee would cave in and he would experience pain.  The knee caving in was not why he was experiencing pain for the record.


His perceptions were that squats were leading to pain and this may or may not have been why the knee was caving in.  Part of this approach is understanding he whole person.  You cannot separate the emotions and beliefs from the physical pieces.  Often a collapse of the knees is caused by a lifter sacrificing control for speed.


I needed to find a way to destabilize that squat pattern that he came in with and to guide him to find one in which I determined is more optimal.  The above is the path that I had laid out.  It definitely worked as he has added 40lbs to his squat, with more room, and the knees are staying out under those heavier weights.


Now we will push weights in that position and see where that drives the competition squat.  From there we will analyze his lifts and see where we are at.  After the competition I will put Daniel in a bunch of different positions that allow me to identify strengths and weaknesses and the process will repeat.


After the competition we will drop frequencies a bit.  I was talking a bit about this about 10 months ago.  Everyone that starts the program gets some good success and I think it had to do with the novelty of it.  This has been observed by other coaches as well which just reinforces this idea for me.


We run that lower frequency program for a bit and adjust as needed.  One change I have made over the last 5 months or so is allowing performance to dictate what we do.  Changing frequencies and intensities and volumes are also changing constraints.


If performance continues to increase with a high amount of variation in the program, we will not take it out before a competition.  If a lifter is performing well with lower frequencies, we will ride that wave until it stops working and from there we will assess and make some adjustments.


We will measure fatigue based off of performance and how the lifter is feeling.  If the lifter is feeling psychologically burnt out, or experiencing little nagging pains, we will pull back and throw in a lighter week to recover. We will pick up where we left off as the lifter feels better.



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