Embrace the Chaos: Everything Sucks and Inception is a True Story

Written by: Kevin Cann


We have a saying around the gym.  This saying is “Embrace the chaos.”  This came about because of my fascination for chaos theory and how I feel it applies to the sport of powerlifting.


Basically, this means that we understand that progress is nonlinear, and we take each day as it comes to us. We make the best decisions on each day to get the best training stimulus based off of how the day is going.


This may mean pushing it hard, only taking some moderate weight sets, or pulling back for a day. This is a concept I can easily understand as a coach, but as an athlete it can still be difficult to accept when you are having a bad day.


As coaches we all have a bias as to what works best in terms of programming and training.  We need to be aware of these biases and embrace the chaos as coaches as well.  You see, our biases usually dictate training, but the self-efficacy of the lifter may be the most important aspect in training.  These can be very different from one another, leading to a lack of progress.


Most coaches understand that gaining strength is a nonlinear process, but they do not act accordingly. Instead they rely on linear mechanical stress principles to apply to an individual lifter.


These mechanical stress principles are derived from Hans Selye’s research on the General Adaptation Syndrome.  This research is 100 years old and was looking at insulin response to stress. Hans Selye most likely had a very low total.


Out of this research comes our overload principle.  Basically, we overload the lifter with stress (volume and/or intensity), we deload, and something super occurs where we are now stronger.  I am having some fun with this wording, but it gets the point across.


This is assuming that strength training is a linear process.  We continue to load more until we get to “functional overreaching” and then we deload and we are stronger.  We know this works sometimes, but also doesn’t work a lot of the time.


I will say that I believe most coaches will change things up when things stop working.  This novelty of a new stimulus can definitely help.  I think this is where we see “This variation blasted through my plateau.”


My theory is that the change is what drives the progress again.  The exercise or the details of the change really does not matter.  We like answers though and we like to pat ourselves on the back in these situations.


There are coaches out there that try their best to be aware of the current research.  The problem is that our strength and conditioning research is absolutely pathetic.  In 2019 I am still reading EMG studies about squat variations.  Has innovation completely died?  Why do we still care about this?


In a brief conversation with Hartman yesterday he told me a story.  He told me about Vince Anello and how he used accommodating resistance. Briefly, Vince Anello was the first sub 200lb lifter to pull 800lbs.


He knew that certain positions of the lift were harder.  Bands and chains were not a thing at the time.  He would put some submaximal weight on the bar and tell his training partner to push down on the bar in the tough positions.  He would also tell him how hard to push down on the bar.


This is absolutely fucking brilliant. If this was today, he would be roasted on Instagram. Innovation is sadly laughed at now a days.  Another point being made there gets back to what I said about self-efficacy.


Anello clearly had a really high training skill.  He knew what he needed to do to get stronger and would make the right decisions day in and day out in the gym.  I remember Sheiko saying that Kirill was the smartest lifter he ever worked with. Tsypkin mentioned in the podcast that Chad Wesley Smith was the same way.  See a trend here of the elite?


As coaches our biases cannot hold back that self-efficacy.  In fact, it is our job to guide it and develop it.  Worrying about what percent of a squat variation is performed with what muscle is a failure to understand that we are not a bag of muscles.


We are complex nonlinear human beings.  We don’t supercompensate after a deload after we hit this magical overreaching number. None of those things are real.  Even if they were it is impossible to know when overreaching is actually occurring.  The inconsistencies in the results show that these beliefs are not principles.


I saw a post shared yesterday about force vector loading.  This post said that a bent over barbell row will have more carryover to the deadlift than a seated row.  Are you fucking kidding me?  The ability to speak in such absolutes is amazing to me.


Logically this makes sense to people due to the angles of the lifts.  Everyone accepts that as being true.  For one, research showing this to be true came from Contreras and showed the hip thrust was better for sprinting than squats.  Contreras sells hip thrust equipment.  Think there is a bias here?


Other research was performed by Beardsley, a researcher that does work with Contreras often.  Again, think there is bias?  This doesn’t mean that the research is bad, it just needs to be understood that bias exists throughout science.  The research not done by them shows no correlation to force vector loading on horizontal and vertical jumping.  Just saying.


Again, this research is assuming we are nothing more than a bag of muscles.  I have had people tell me that the seated row helped them understand the “pinch and push” I talk about with the shoulder blades in the squat. There is transference there even though it is very different.


This doesn’t mean the seated row is better.  Neither is. Train them both and be strong in both angles.  We know neither of those exercises will make the deadlift better without the deadlift itself.  So how much of a role do they really play?


The hard part is where do we go to learn about this stuff?  Motor control research has come a long way.  There is a starting point.  I view the lifts and strength itself as a skill.  Skill acquisition accepts the fact that it is a nonlinear process that is constantly changing.  This meets our needs.


This is how I latched onto a constraints-led approach.  This is a nonlinear dynamic systems theory that gives me a basis to construct my coaching. This seems to fit much better than a linear mechanical stress model.


In terms of understanding the physiological concept of strength, it can be difficult.  Good thing chronic pain being an epidemic has led to a lot of pain research.  Also, pain tends to be a nonlinear dynamic physiological experience with physical and psychological components.


This sounds just like strength and skill acquisition to me.  We know that strength and pain both are affected by the emotions, beliefs, perceptions, and cultural upbringing of each person.  These emotions and beliefs and experiences can be updated and elicit a change.


This is where I latch onto predictive processing theories.  These theories follow the same mechanisms as those applied in a constraints-led approach.  You predict and perceive, experience something, and then we update those predictions and perceptions based off of the feedback from the world.


It is not so simple as there are layers to this.  We have perceptual inference upon our perceptual inference.  Basically the movie Inception is true.  You go layers deep to change an “idea” and we see changes in behavior.


Remember my mention of self-efficacy in elite lifters earlier?  That is the idea we are implanting when we perform “inception.”  That is our job as coaches.  We are Leonardo DiCaprio and help guide those changes by planting an idea and making them think it was their idea.


Remember in the movie it had to be his idea in order for it to stick.  We guide that process through conversations and coaching.  I only give lifters an exercise, based off of a constraints-led approach, and reps with a suggested top weight.


They decide number of sets, and how to adjust the suggested top weight based off of the day.  I help guide this process.  Over time you can begin to see the program fill out into what it looks like with sets and reps and all of that.  Except here it has been created by the lifter and their self-efficacy.


This skill of training takes time and we continue to improve it every single day as much as our skill within the lifts and strength.  I think this is very unique and many might enjoy hearing about it.


Most will just assume I am losing my mind.

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