Where I Went Wrong with Self-Organization

Written by: Kevin Cann


I have discussed self-organization a lot with the dynamical systems theory of skill acquisition.  I firmly believe that the coach should be a guide in the background, allowing the athlete to explore what works best for them.


I still believe this.  This was not where I went wrong.  The problem is, this is very difficult to administer.  I put rules in place for lifters to self-organize into high, medium, and low stress days.  I also moved them around quite a bit to explore various angles and positions within the lifts.


I wrote the programs as if we lived in the perfect world.  The perfect world is one in which we can train hard every single time we enter the gym.  There is a lot of uncertainty with fatigue and how it relates to performance.  This doesn’t mean that it does not exist, but it is so multifactorial, that measuring it is nearly impossible.


Everyone comes with different backgrounds.  Some people have more stressful jobs, tolerate training stress better or worse, sleep habits, nutritional habits, training age, and so on.  My plan was to write out the perfect world scenario and the lifters adjust as needed.


The problem is, they did not do that.  Instead they would continue to push into frustration and in some cases pain.  This did not happen right away but took some time to get to that point.  It took about 6 months for the first person to start feeling the wheels coming off.


I am fortunate enough that I have a really good relationship with my lifters, and we were able to adjust together and get the bus back on the right road.  This then happened pretty frequently.  I was constantly adjusting on the fly.  To put it differently I was being reactive instead of proactive.


Now, to back up for a second, I have a great benefit of working with mostly beginners to intermediates.  This means that I can try anything, and it will most likely work.  I just need to be observant and make some guesses about how things will work out in the long term.


Raw lifting, 3-4 days per week, does not come with much risk.  There is some potential burnout and maybe some nagging pain stuff.  The risk for something serious is very small, unless you are doing something stupid like randomly spiking weights or overall workloads.


For a while, I was very surprised.  It seemed people could just slam on the gas and keep going.  This rattled everything that I had come to know.  Now, some people will say “There is a reason the older ones did it like that.”  I get it, but there is so much inconsistency in the literature and amongst coaches that I needed to see for myself.


I have over 30 years of competitive sports in my background.  I did not start lifting weights as a teenager, do well in the junior division of the USAPL, and start speaking training gospel.  I have more competitive sports experience than they have years on this planet.  I know what it is like to train hard almost every single day.


In my head, we are just lifting weights.  This seems like a very easy sport.  The thing that I did not take into consideration was the change in training we did in other sports.  We didn’t just play a game every single day.  We did drills, some of which were more taxing than others.  We did conditioning on some days, but not all.  There was a lot of variability in the practice environment and the energy systems that were stressed.


I lost sight of this with the weights.  We basically did the same thing every time in the gym.  We changed exercises frequently, but at the end of the day it was pretty much the same thing over and over.  We were getting stronger, but we were also getting slower and nagging pains were piling up.


This wasn’t the plan as I pictured the lifters following the rules and taking easier days throughout training.  They did not have the training skill to navigate this effectively, and they have enough drive to just keep pushing.  This is a dangerous combination.


I have decided to pull back a bit and put a lot more structure into the programs.  I have been fortunate enough to have learned from some of the best to ever do this sport.  Time to take what I learned from them and what I learned from experimenting and put it all together.


This is where the “Constraints-Led Conjugate” came from.  I love the constraints-led approach.  Teaching the lifter by placing them in various positions, just makes a lot of sense to me.  Experience is a great learning tool.  This allows the lifter to develop a higher level of skill under the bar.


The positions need to punish inefficiencies and only leave room for more efficient options.  What I learned over time is that it is not just the position, but the combination of the position and the weight.  All my lifters are getting away with any technique, in any position, with the empty bar.  You get heavier weights on there, different story.  This is why I like singles.  Plus heavy singles come with a psychological piece that mimics competition.


When I worked with Sheiko he organized training in a way we could squat or pull every training day.  This was done by managing training load.  This could be by manipulating overall volumes, intensities, and ROM.  This gets more difficult with higher intensities.


Westside only has one lower max effort day.  I do not feel like they deadlift enough.  This may be the bias that came from working with Sheiko for so long.  However, I can use what I learned from him to apply similar concepts.  We have an upper body only day after the day 1 max effort squats.  This leaves 72 hours before we pull.


I learned that we can get away with pushing very hard for a period of time.  This lasted for months before it became an issue.  My initial thoughts were to rotate max effort deadlifts every other week.  Week 1 can be max effort, week 2 can be repetition/dynamic work.


On day 4 we tend to do rep/dynamic squat work and sometimes some lighter deadlifts.  On that week 2, the lighter deadlifts move up to day 3, and we just squat day 4.  Sheiko would do this a lot with me when I was coached by him.


My day 4 would just be some light deadlifts every other week.  Doing it like this gives an intensity deload at the end of the week as well as making day 4 easier.  We are cutting the volume in about half on that day 4.  This should allow for recovery for day 1 squats again.


I was sent an article from the Westside Barbell site, written by Burley Hawk.  He seems to only do max effort deadlifts or goodmornings, but I liked his idea for rotations.  He does a typical max effort lift week 1.  Week 2 he does between 80-85% of 1RM for 3-5 reps.


This is very similar to how I am rotating the deadlifts, except my week 2 is a bit lighter due to the max effort squats.  However, I like this rotation for the squats at times.  The issue with percentages is that they can be off at times.  Well, they will be pretty accurate if we use a number from a week ago.


I can alternate max effort squats and deadlifts.  On week 1 we can max the squat and rep the pull.  Week 2 we can alternate it.  This is another viable option to allow for recovery.  On max effort days, we tend to do some light technique work after.  On the days we do rep work in place of max effort, we will not do those backdowns.  This cuts workload.


The backdowns build tolerance to greater workloads.  This gives me options to be able to pull back while still getting some quality training in.  The other options I have is manipulating the exercises themselves.


Some exercises have greater absolute loads than others.  I can use a high bar wide stance pin squat for max effort squats and then overload the deadlifts.  I can rotate which lower body exercise gets the higher absolute loads.  Load management does matter.


The rep work and dynamic days can rotate as I see fit.  I got an infinite amount of options here for things to do.  I like the options to keep progress driving forward, but also for the flexibility needed to deal with lifters that have jobs and outside stress.  It can flow with their lives.


Some will/have made comments about our training in the past.  That what I was doing was stupid, or what not.  I do not regret anything that I have tried.  Trying those things and being open minded has gotten me to this point.  I am not copying anyone else, but instead learning for myself and doing my own thing.


I will do a podcast to lay this out as well.

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s