Written by: Kevin Cann
I was talking with Zak Gabor in the gym yesterday and we were discussing Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” In one part of the book, Kuhn shows a picture. What do you see, a rabbit or a duck?
Let us say that when you look at it, that you see a rabbit. I point out that the rabbit’s ears could actually be a duck bill, and that the picture could actually be a duck and not a rabbit. If now you see the duck, I have just changed your perception of the world without changing the world in which you live in.
This is how we actually see the world. We perceive it a certain way and then we explore it, looking to prove our predicted perceptions correct. It is not very easy to change someone’s mind on how they perceive the world.
This is not necessarily their fault, but actually how our brain’s are wired. Our brains do not like to be wrong and will try to prove their expectation and beliefs to be correct. This rabbit or duck scenario is a good analogy for the world of powerlifting.
When you start out as a coach or athlete you see a rabbit only. You view the body as a machine that is defined by its leverages. You view training as depleting energy stores and your CNS ability to do work. You might even use fancy words like overreaching, overtraining, and supercompensation.
You might argue that daily undulated periodization is superior to linear periodization and structure your training accordingly. You read about specificity and structure your training with all competition lifts arguing that volume is the driver of results.
There is nothing wrong with this. We all start here, and I think it is a great starting point. However, we need to keep an open mind and pay attention to outcomes. All of a sudden all of those things stop working. We blame it on our nutrition, or outside stress.
None of these situations takes into account the open complex human system. We are non-linear dynamic creatures. Instead the above assumes that we are closed systems where we can predict not only the outcomes, but the timing of outcomes.
I believed those pieces to be true, until they weren’t. In an article titled “Acute Dehydration Impairs Endurance Without Modulating Neuromuscular Function” written by Oliver Barley and colleagues, they show that weight cuts impair strength and endurance in combat sports athletes without altering any physiological components. It is literally in your head.
You can’t use nutrition, or outside stress as excuses because we do not know how they actually effect performance. Elite athletes seem to be almost immune to mental fatigue. I knew a few combat sports athletes that talked about using the weight cut as a mental preparation period. Their hunger was a symbol for their hunger in the cage. They performed better with a weight cut!
When the general principles stopped working, I knew I had to change my perceptions. I had to learn to see the duck. What I learned is that perception is everything. Since I have started embracing the uncertainty of things and structuring a training program around what we know actually works, we have seen much higher levels of success.
It is impossible to find optimal volumes, so we threw that out for near max daily sets. We removed the competition lifts at times and just performed variations of the lifts. We saw huge improvements from doing this. We threw out expectations and beliefs about fatigue and we began lifting heavy every single day, only taking a break when our body tells us we need to.
This doesn’t mean we are getting hurt. We see far fewer nagging things now than we did before. We just may see a down performance day in the gym. The effort will be the same, but the weight just may be less. Over time this continued effort leads to some big increases in performance.
We are seeing the duck, but the rabbit (general principles) are still there. We are just applying those principles to the individual instead of generally. This changes the game quite a bit. In fact, it makes it look so different that people get angry about it on the internet.
Those people do not want to see the duck. They only see the rabbit, and the rabbit is like a stuffed animal that they have held every night to keep out the bogeyman. They clutch it so tight so that it brings them comfort. Just like a child that needs to move on from the stuffed animal, so do these people, or they will never progress.
I think this picture tells even more of the story of strength sports. Perception is everything. I run a Dynamic Systems Theory/Constraints-Led Approach with PPS. This framework accepts the non-linearity of things and guides the coach to make decisions based off of the individual’s emotions, beliefs, perceptions, and biomechanics as well as the environment’s affects (the team atmosphere), and the actual task.
I structure the tasks so that inefficient techniques are punished, and only more efficient solutions are allowed. However, breakdowns in technique may be nothing more than our perceptions working against us.
If we think a weight will be hard and heavy and we are nervous, we tend to speed up the actions in our brain. When we speed up the actions we see pitching forward in the squat, pushing the bar towards the hips on the bench press, and hips rising on the deadlift.
If the coach gets the lifter to slow it down a bit in their head, we often see the lifter lift the same, and sometimes more, weight efficiently. It is not a weak muscle group, or your biomechanics leading to inefficiency. It is the lack of confidence in your head. This is not all conscious, there are subconscious pieces to this.
We pause a lot on the halfway up or do very long concentric tempos, or pin squats even and we see improvements. These improvements are gradually altering our perceptual-motor landscape. We perceive a movement, predict a motor strategy, get feedback from the movement, and update our predictions. This is what basically happens, but over a period of time. The brain does not like to be disproven, but it will slowly compromise. There are also many levels to this.
When we alter the task, we are not just altering the perception of the actual movement. We are increasing perceived effort. Putting your feet out a couple of inches and the bar an inch higher on your back, does not alter mechanics enough to explain a drop-in performance.
Your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and back are still lifting the weight. Many lifters prefer a wider stance in the squat. Bryce Lewis and John Haack squat with a high bar position with high success. Some lifters bench more with a closer grip than a wider one.
We like to sound smart by talking moment arms and leverages, but if we believe this to be true, we are blind to what we see as a whole. If we use a reductionist view of biomechanics, we lose the mind and the mind is running this show.
It may be as simple as altering these tasks raises perceived effort. We run these “harder” variations for a period of time. We get the competition lift back and we now perceive similar efforts at much higher weights with a more comfortable position. We gain confidence and have the support of a team and we ride that wave to a large PR.
When we run variations, we can see them be very difficult at first. However, over time we see improvements. Large improvements over a few weeks. This just may be the lifter’s brain adapting to the perceived effort of the exercise. The lifter begins to feel a bit more comfortable with it, the brain is being trained, and the exercise becomes easier. Often, lifters hit their previous 1RM in a variation or even an all-time PR.
Kerry hit 300lbs off pins (8lb PR), Alyssa hit 345lbs high bar wide stance tempo (20lb PR), Doug hit his previous best off pins with high bar, Allie hit a 5lb PR off pins, Vin hasn’t touched heavier weights at all just really long tempo and took 5kg less than his opener for a 5 reps. Tempo alters perceived effort. Keep that high and when the lifter can be comfortable, we see improvements.
Training perceived effort is a way of training the brain. I often tell lifters to go up when it feels heavy and so does the group. This is when the weight feels heavy to the lifter, but physiological function is not changed. Strength is there. In fact, physiological reasons do not explain down performance days. However, mental fatigue can explain it. This doesn’t mean we can just talk ourselves into it. The brain is in charge. We can trick it and train it, but ultimately it will make a decision to consciously stop.
This story to be continued.