Training as a Thought Process

Written by: Kevin Cann


I say this a lot, that my training style is a thought process.  We do not just follow a recipe when we are training.  Earlier on in my coaching career we followed a recipe.  I had a structure of the way that the programs went, and we stayed bound to that structure no matter what.


I am not saying that I was wrong for doing that.  In the beginning it was very important for me to follow a structure.  I know people always say to think outside of the box, but there is a reason that the box exists in the first place.


I did not have the experience to be thinking outside of the box.  It is important to see that I used the word “experience” and not knowledge in that previous sentence.  I had enough knowledge; I have 2 degrees in this field.  The problem is that I had no practical application in coaching people to be strong as fuck.


As I saw these things play out in the real world, we have adapted the way that we train.  We were doing lots of submaximal volume work in the beginning.  This really focused on the technical pieces of the lift.  However, some lifters would get anxious and nervous before a test.  This quickly told me that we need to address the mental pieces of the person more in training.  Eventually I stumbled upon dynamic systems theory and here we are.


I learned that all weaknesses were mental, physical, or technical, just like Dave Tate says.  Training is about assessing weaknesses and planning to make them stronger.  It is that simple.  Strengths and weaknesses will always be changing as this a non-linear dynamic process.  The program needs to allow us to constantly assess and address weaknesses.


The general principles keep us grounded in our thinking.  We know we need a certain amount of volume to get stronger.  This ties into the Principle of Dynamic Organization which states that the body is always looking for a more efficient way to complete a task.  The body needs enough repetitions to become more efficient at a movement.


We know specificity is important.  A max effort single in the 3 lifts is as specific as it gets, but we can’t forget about the law of accommodation.  This means we need to use variability to allow us to practice the max effort attempts that are specific to the sport.


We can’t forget about fatigue.  Max singles do take a lot out of you.  If we accumulate too much fatigue, we can see a decrease in performance and even increase our risk of injury.  How do we take max singles, but still get enough volume to improve technical efficiency?


There is no perfect program that addresses everything.  The program needs to be flexible and adaptable to meet the needs of each lifter.  The individual themselves brings a lot of variability to the table in their perceptions, beliefs, experiences, and even their ability to focus and tolerate pain.  They come with different weaknesses and will develop different strengths and weaknesses as they mature as a lifter.  In these cases we need to shift the focus of the program to attack those weaknesses, but to still follow general principles.


We hit a max single on squat and bench weekly and deadlifts every other week.  We max out more than any other group or training program that I know of in powerlifting.  However, there are times that I feel fewer heavy singles are in order to work on technique.  In these cases they may max out every other week in all of the lifts.


This will allow them to perform more repetitions and get more practice.  In place of the max effort lifts we will usually do some volume around the 80% of 1RM mark, just like we did a lot with Sheiko-like training programs.  As technique improves, we can use the max singles more frequently.


This is just one example.  I often will have lifters deadlift on day 1 instead of squat so they are most fresh, mentally and physically to work on the lift.  This is often due to the deadlift being a weaker lift when compared to the squat. We need to be flexible and adaptable as coaches and as athletes to get the most out of every single training day.


I never felt like I got much out of a mindless training session where I came in and just hit some 70% squats.  I wasn’t as focused as I could have been for those days as they were extremely easy.  This could be why they were not as effective with some of my lifters, it just did not engage them the same way as taking a heavy single.


When all attention, focus, and emotion is geared towards lifting, the lifter will see greater progress.  Part of coaching is also keeping them engaged.  I find variability fun and engaging.  Learning a new exercise, or a new piece of equipment is a lot of fun to me.  I think that this cannot be overlooked.


The coaches job is to navigate all of these pieces.  It is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but the pieces are constantly changing shape.  You can think you begin to see the clear picture, but then something changes, and the pieces no longer fit together.  It can be easy to just go Rogue in these situations, or scrap a program all together, but neither of those is a good option.


Sometimes small changes lead to large results.  Also, sometimes it just seems like things are not going well.  It will not just move up in a nice straight line.  It is not linear.  Patience becomes a very big skill to have in being a successful powerlifter.  The coach must teach that through being honest about expectations and fostering a mindset where each lifter ignores outcomes and focuses on the task right in front of them.  Every rep is an opportunity to improve, do not look past any of them.


Training needs to be flexible and adaptable to meet the ever changing needs of each individual.  This does not mean that we do not have structure.  The general principles supply the structure that we need.  We must also understand that there are things we do not know, and blind spots within our thinking.  Learning to embrace this uncertainty is also important.  Most of these things we learn with experience.  There are no short cuts to wisdom.

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