Written by: Kevin Cann
When I first started coaching the sport of powerlifting, I thought specificity was everything. We did a lot of variations, but the variations would be in the competition stance with competition bar and hand placement, competition grip on the bench, and competition style deadlift.
AI would argue that this is for maximum carryover to the main lifts due to the similar positions. I would argue that every repetition in training should look the exact same. This is to ensure that we are training the same movement pattern consistently. This I would argue leads to a stable movement pattern.
The issue with this is that it was not holding up well under the heavier weights. We were making good progress, but I knew it could be better. I began looking more into skills acquisition and a constraints-led approach.
I was basically attempting to teach skill acquisition without really having a good understanding of the theories out there. This clearly was limiting my abilities as a coach trying to work on technique (skills) of the lifts.
I had this theory that the lighter weights were not heavy enough to actually transfer over to the heavier lifts. A constraints-led approach also has a different view on the variability of the movement pattern. This theory does not view error as all bad, but instead the athlete learning.
This made some bells go off in my head. I had started hitting some heavier sets in training with my lifters, but there were limits on these based off of load management. I ended up taking off these limits as I found they really didn’t matter and the heavier we were lifting the better that we were getting. This is a different topic though.
I was still holding back at this time too due to technique breaking down. However, learning about the constraints-led approach made me think a little more about this. I could lift heavy more often to give lifters confidence under heavier weights and even to fix technique.
Yes, heavier weights can fix technique. In order for this to work, I just need to put the lifters in positions where that technical fault is punished and just let them figure it out. By heavy I am talking RPE 8.5-9.5 in these various positions.
Oftentimes we build these positions up enough where lifters are taking 90+% of 1RM for reps. A lot of the positions are just altered by foot placement and I do not think there is a big difference in 1RM between the same lifter squatting close, medium, or wide.
A pin squat with a pause off of the pins will not be as heavy in absolute loads, but the relative intensity will still be between an RPE 8.5 to 9.5. I believe that the mind knows the weight on the bar, but the body only knows effort.
This doesn’t mean that we only need effort. We can’t separate the body from the mind. We need to train the mind. I believe the mind needs to see these bigger weights to build confidence and there actually is a skill to lifting higher absolute loads. The weight on the bar is actually a constraint.
The problem is you can’t train this skill with only the competition movements. Every lifter will come to a coach with a stable pattern in all 3 lifts. This stable pattern is based off of their perceptions and previous training experiences.
In order to develop a different skill under the weights (different pattern), you need to alter constraints to guide the lifter to self-organizing towards that pattern. This is how you destabilize the original pattern and stabilize a new and improved one.
This takes a high level of skill from the coach. This is where coaching blends the science into an art. Oftentimes I will completely remove the competition lift from a training block and only perform variations of the lifts.
This will ruffle some feathers I am sure on the internet, but I have had some really good success lately in doing this. People will argue quite heavily about specificity of training and how powerlifting is one of the sports in which we can train with high specificity.
The belief that the competition lifts should be the primary focus relies on information from traditional theories of motor control. These traditional theories put an emphasis on the development of movement skills from developing cognitive structures that influence memory recall.
A constraints-led approach does not put the same emphasis on memory recall. Coordinated movement is instead viewed as an “emergent property” based off the variables given to the lifter in training. There are many levels of learning that take place. It does not just occur in the memory recall portion of the brain.
Competition actually is driven by the “ego” portion of the brain. This is very different from practice. In order to make it more “specific” there would need to be a way to tap into that ego driven piece. Competition does well with that. I think that this is something that Westside actually gets right. They create competition in training.
I also think we can get this by pushing weights a little bit when the timing is right. I think that competition with ones self brings about that competition specific ego driven behavior. This is one of my theories why the higher intensity sets tend to lead to better results for my lifters than measurements such as total tonnage.
High repetition work is not competition specific either. Sets of 6 or more repetitions are actually more metabolically challenging than heavy singles. The mindset approaching a set of 6 is very different from the mindset of approaching a heavy single.
We can’t just max out our lifts every day in the gym though. However, we can put our lifters in positions that punish their technique flaws and still get that same relative intensity. If we choose the right positions, we do not need to necessarily worry about the errors we are seeing under the bar.
These errors are expected as we are exploiting weaknesses and are a result of the lifter attempting to learn a new behavior. In the beginning the weights are usually controlled by the lifter’s inexperience with the exercise.
However, we tend to see some beginner gains with these exercises even on more advanced lifters. Very quickly they are able to begin to figure it out and start to load it up. We keep loading it up until progress seems to stall and then we change it up.
Sometimes at this point the competition lift will come back in and we see a remarkable improvement. Sometimes we see a bit of an improvement, but it is not necessarily as good as it can be. From here I will bring the variation back in but alter it in a way that further addresses that need.
For a lifter with the common pitching out of the hole, this may mean high bar wide stance squats to start. We run that for a bit and see how the competition lift looks. In a lot of cases it will look better, but still need some work. This is where I might use a high bar wide stance squat with a pause on the halfway up.
Many will think that this is not specific to the low bar comp stance squat. I don’t care, I am looking for a transference of skill. The rules of the squat are still the exact same as is the equipment. We squat to depth and stand back up with a straight bar on our backs.
The only difference is bar placement by an inch or 2 and foot placement by a couple of inches. This just changes the angles enough to give a different stimulus to the lifter to figure out. It is still a squat. In fact, a squat that may be targeting the hips a little more. In this scenario the hips may actually be lagging behind the quads and back in terms of strength in the squat.
This not only punishes bad technique but may actually be strengthening a “weaker” muscle group. Neither of which can be corrected from the competition lifts alone. Lifting lighter weights with good technique does not hold up well under maximal attempts.
The amount of success that I have had from this approach has even surprised me. Now it is just a matter of utilizing this approach while managing the performance/fatigue scale of each athlete. That is a story for another day.