Long Term Skill Acquisition in Powerlifting

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I have had this conversation quite a few times in the last week and I think it makes a very interesting topic.  I view strength as a skill. Not just the technique of the lifts, but the actual physiological adaptation.

 

The definition of a skill is “the ability to do something well, expertise” and “A particular ability.” If we are really good at something, we even identify it as a strength.  Developing a skill is also a dynamic process.

 

In skill development there are progressions, regressions, skips, and jumps.  This is the same as in strength training.  Developing strength is also a dynamic process.  It is a dynamic process that the coach needs to understand both short term and long-term pieces of.

 

In most sports there are long term skill development plans.  I played soccer growing up so I will use that as an example.  At 5 years old the ball was smaller, the field was smaller, the goals were small without goaltenders, and the number of kids on the field was far less than 11.

 

The reasons for all of this go far beyond what many understand.  The ball being smaller allowed the kids to develop appropriate skills for kicking the ball.  If they used the larger adult sized ball this would alter mechanics to move the heavier ball and have an impact in the long term on kicking skills.  The goal is for the kids to self-organize into appropriate kicking technique within a game.

 

The field was smaller because the kids are smaller.  A larger field would not be appropriate for the speed and size of the current players. It would be a very different game with in game skill development being something that would not carry over as much.

 

The goals were smaller without a goaltender to encourage kids to shoot and aim for a target.  If a goalie was in the net there may be hesitation from the kid to shoot.  There may also be a focus developed on the goalie instead of the target.  The goal being smaller allows them to self-organize to a technique that allows them to put the ball in a smaller space.

 

The smaller sided games are actually to avoid swarming to the ball.  This helps to teach appropriate spacing on the field that will carry over to later on.  All of these pieces serve a purpose.

 

In powerlifting I think many forget this.  They want everything right now.  I understand this modern day thinking with the internet being a highlight reel of people hitting big weights.  Athletes need to understand where they are in their journey and how to appropriately set themselves up for the long term.

 

Most lifters start powerlifting later in life.  This isn’t a sport that many start at a young age here in America.  There are a few and they just happen to be the best coaches around now.  We need to understand this part in the beginning.  It isn’t about starting them at lower volumes and building them up.

 

These lifters have developed strengths and weaknesses based off of their experiences.  At this stage in their life their perceptions, beliefs, and sociocultural surroundings have molded them into the human in front of us. This means education is a big part of our job in the beginning.

 

As a coach we want to develop the whole athlete.  Many of the current world champions come from a bodybuilding background and the Eastern Europeans have about 10 years of GPP work before their training becomes specific. This builds a great foundation to build the lifter.

 

This is not usually the case here.  Most programs will call for high volumes of competition lifts.  This can yield fast progress off of the bat, but it can hinder the athlete later on.  This is one reason why I believe lifters see progress for the first couple of years and then there is a drop-off in total or a sustained plateau.

 

Kerry had asked/yelled at me the other day “Why hasn’t my deadlift moved in years!?”  This is one reason why I believe it has been stuck. I wasn’t attempting to build the complete athlete.  I was only attempting to strengthen her comp stance deadlift.

 

Kerry competes in a medium stance sumo where her knees will straighten and back will round under heavier weights.  This can’t be fixed from this position and to build a resilient athlete as well as strengthen weaknesses we need to alter angles.  This shifts emphasis to different muscles that have been ignored and punishes less efficient positions by disallowing the lifter to complete the task.

 

For Kerry this means a lot of wide stance sumo deadlifts.  This will strengthen her hips to take some pressure off of her back to pull. If the hips and legs catch up to her back strength, there is a huge pull to be had there.  However, I kind of fucked up there and it is going to take time.

 

She trained with that less efficient position for 4 years.  This isn’t as simple as putting a variation in for a block and everything is ok. She competed with a wide stance deadlift at the Arnold and we have continued to build it from there.  She has already doubled a weight that didn’t budge a month ago.  There is still a lot of work to be done here to get it where we need it to be.

 

I hindered Kerry’s long-term progress by not being a good enough coach.  Thanks Kerry for sticking with me through all of this.  I remember Sheiko saying that a world class lifter needs a world class coach.  Kerry had an elite deadlift when she started, I was not ready at the time to handle that.

 

Luckily, she was not elite in the other 2 lifts and we have had increases in total each year due to those continually growing.

 

I asked Sheiko how I get to that level.  He said that I must think about powerlifting 20 hours a day.  The rest of the time is spent training.  I think there was about an hour break per day where I could think of something else.  Reasonable.

 

I have literally done that since that day.  It has brought me down some fun rabbit holes and has gotten me to this point.  Without Kerry’s deadlift we are probably not seeing the results we are today as a group.

 

Some will argue that that is just how she pulls.  Yes technically it is, but it is definitely inefficient and will have a lower ceiling than if we correct those issues.  Those issues cannot be corrected with lighter weights.

 

I would sit there and give her a lot of feedback on each repetition in training.  This is not usually my style, but I think my frustration coming out as trying to do too much and fix it with words.  This feedback is not appropriate.

 

Our jobs as coaches is to guide discovery for more efficient positions.  I was having a good conversation about this with Alyssa. Alyssa is a PhD candidate for educational leadership.  She is doing some research on this topic and how it applies to learning.

 

Even though it is intended for the classroom, the same principles apply to skill acquisition.  The research shows a lot of support for guided discovery groups performing much better than groups receiving a lot of feedback.

 

Basically, these studies are usually setup where one group receives a lot of instruction from an administrator while another group will be given the same task except with constraints placed upon it to help them discover the appropriate behavior.

 

Oftentimes the instructional group will perform better in the earlier tests.  However, upon coming back and being forced to recall the information they tend to score much lower than the guided discovery groups.

 

This means that the feedback you give a lifter today may make the lift look better, but in the long run, or under higher stress, the ability to recall it will be lower.  This is why I follow a constraints-led approach.

 

A constraints-led approach allows me to alter the task in a way that punishes less efficient positions by disallowing the athlete to complete the task.  It also allows me to place the athlete into all kinds of various positions to see where their strengths and weaknesses are.

 

From there we get a good glimpse of the whole athlete.  We can then build a complete lifter that is strong at all angles.  This builds resiliency as well as an increased skill of strength.  These changes in angles are the feedback for the lifter.

 

Instead of focusing on my words they are focused on completing the task at these different angles. Different angles that are usually punishing their positions that they tend to fallback too.  The sensory input that they receive is their feedback. Feedback that will have higher recall rates under higher stress conditions, like heavier weights or a competition.  We also load these positions up with heavy weights respectfully.

 

Every athlete predicts movements before they occur.  Every repetition they perform gives feedback that gets put into this predictive process. Over time we have a higher level of skill because this is more subconscious than conscious attention.  A coach’s words are conscious attention.

 

When our lifters are surfing Instagram, these perceptual processes are also being updated.  This is why education is so important.  This is why it is also important to be adaptable as a coach.  It is not as easy as this variation will fix this problem.

 

Each athlete is different in how they learn.  Tweaks to these exercises will need to be made.  The human is also dynamic.  They are constantly changing initial conditions that the coach needs to be aware of and make the appropriate decisions.

 

My understanding of this has made me change how I write the programs quite a bit.  I no longer write number of sets.  I let each athlete decide that based off of how each day goes. I will write the exercise, reps, and suggested top weight.  They adjust accordingly.

 

Through this process we have a lot of conversations.  These conversations help educate each lifter on making appropriate decisions.  I feel this is the best way to address all of the things that we know can positively and negatively affect training.

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 )

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s