My First Theory: Mechanical Stress and Perception

Written by: Kevin Cann


I started this coaching thing by mimicking my coach.  I was fortunate enough to have one of the greatest coaches in this sport at the time and for 3 years.  Over time my network grew, and my learning expanded.


My network includes other powerlifting coaches as well as physical therapists.  I am lucky enough to call these people my friends at this point. We have had many interesting conversations that have made me think and challenged me in many ways.


I have read extensively about dynamic systems and made many changes to the ways in which I do things. I think I am ready to finally talk about my first theory in regard to powerlifting.  This theory concerns mechanical stress.


Mechanical stress is what makes up the majority of the focus in powerlifting.  This stems from Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome.  We overload a lifter with volume, we deload, and we supercompensate and come back stronger.


A typical example in programming is 3 weeks of increases in volume, followed by a deload, and then starting it all over again.  Daily undulated periodization is a commonly used periodization model that alters volumes and intensities in a bit of a different structure.


I have focused quite a bit on the mechanical stress in the past.  I tracked total tonnage, number of lifts, average intensities, and even more breakdowns of those numbers.  This assumes that the principle of overload is correct.


If the overload principle was correct wouldn’t we be able to predict and reproduce results?  This just is not true.  Sometimes liters hit PRs in the middle of a block when volume is high and then those numbers aren’t there on the platform when we taper down dropping fatigue and compete.  Shouldn’t that lifter be supercompensated?


That same lifter may have performed well under those exact same guidelines previously.  Training is completely unpredictable.  In fact, it would be chaotic.  To understand a chaotic system we need to view it from a macroscopic lens and attempt to find trends with these irregularities.  This is no easy task and to be honest the math might just be way too complex to actually figure out.


When we encounter a complex system, we can make many large mistakes in trying to tame it.  We tend to like to focus on mechanical stress because it is easy to see and easy to track.  It can give us a lot of data points and make us feel like we have a lot of answers.


These answers will most certainly work.  It may even work most of the time.  My question is, what happens when it doesn’t?  Do you continue to do the same thing until it does?  Do you chalk it up to nutrition or outside stress or sleep?  Even those have poor correlations to predicting performance.


We know all of these things, including mechanical stress, matters in strength training.  How much do they matter and how we monitor these aspects is above our paygrades.  My guess is this math is so complex that to make it work it may need imaginary numbers and exist in the complex plane, a plane that we can’t even see.


RPEs get closer to understanding this.  The RPE is a simple number that takes into consideration the human element of the lifter. Their perceptions of how hard the weight is and how hard the training is, is monitored.


As coaches we take these numbers and instead use them to dictate intensity of training.  Instead of putting a percentage on the sheet we may use RPEs or both.  I am not just here shitting on other coaches, I do this as well.


I am actually taking a step back from this as I test my theory on mechanical stress.  I have kind of been testing it the last few months in person by dictating training outside of what is on their program.  However, here is my theory:


Mechanical stress only matters as much as the lifter perceives it to


I have reread Kiely’s articles every day for the last few weeks.  This has literally been a problem that I have been attempting to solve since I started coaching.  The irregularities in training volumes and intensities and how they relate to performance has been eating me up for years.


You can go back in time and see my frustrations with this in older articles.  The lifter in front of you is one human.  You cannot separate the body from the mind.  We know perceptions are important for motor control, pain, and strength.


Modern stress research has taken us from Selye and showed us the importance of emotions, cognitions, and perceptions to all of these aspects.  Those values differ for each person in front of you and they differ for that person on a day to day basis.


If I truly want to find trends in irregularities for each individual, I need to fully embrace self-organization. I only have embraced that with technique.  I was writing out all of the lifters’ warmups and volumes daily.  I can’t find these trends if I don’t allow the lifters to see what works best for them.


I am making a major change in how I deliver the programs.  We have rules in regard to navigating training.  One of the biggest rules is effective communication between the 2 of us.  Typically we take 1-2 hard sets per day, per lift.  These hard sets should rate between RPE 8.5-9.5.  I believe effective sets are more important than any other measurement for mechanical stress.


The lifter has the option to not take hard sets if they don’t feel like it.  This is where communication is key.  They also have the option to take more if they feel they can. This goes against the norm in many cases because of the concerns with fatigue.  I am not sure those concerns are warranted and even if they are it is impossible to measure.  If it is there, we take it.  If it isn’t, we don’t.


I am no longer using fancy Excel spreadsheets to build out training.  Instead I will give a range of hard-set weights that I feel the lifter should shoot for.  Again, if they don’t feel great training, they can decrease that weight and if they feel good, they can go up.  I will also write the total number of sets and reps without recommended weights.  I am planning on even giving some more flexibility here as well.


I will let the lifter select what they feel is appropriate.  At the end of the training session they will rate how hard the session was.  From that information we will build out the following week.  My goal is to help each lifter self-organize into frequencies, volumes, and intensities that work best for them at that current time in their training.  Remember this is always changing.


I feel my job as a coach is just to help guide the ship.  I believe self-efficacy is important for strength development.  The current research supports this theory. It is difficult as a coach to give up so much control to the lifter.


Many may think that over time the lifters will not need me anymore.  I could not disagree more.  My intuition is based off of a data set of everything I see and everything I know. It is much more advanced than an Excel spreadsheet.


I also feel what I am doing with self-organization requires a higher skill level from the coach.  It requires an analysis of irregular trends that are difficult to understand.  It requires me choosing the right task for the learner and setting up training in an effective way to ensure that person is self-organizing into the best situation for that lifter.


This requires knowing more about the lifters than just their 1RMs and previous training.  This is just a quick overview.  Perhaps in the next article I will go into greater scientific detail why I feel my theory is less wrong.

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