Why Coaches Need to Have Heuristics for Technique

Written by: Kevin Cann

This is a topic that seems to come up quite frequently in discussions with other lifters and coaches.  I really enjoy these conversations and they happen to be some of my favorite ones to have.  

Biomechanics was always one of my favorite classes in both undergrad and grad school.  It is a topic that has always interested me.  It is probably another reason why I was so drawn to Sheiko when I hired him as my coach.  

Sheiko had a very specific way of teaching the technique of the lifts.  This was really important for his system and his program.  He would use a lot of pauses in his variations of the lifts. This was so that the lifter could focus on the technique he wanted to see in the lift and to develop control of specific positions.  

This is very different from Louie Simmons.  Louie says that strength is not measured in weight, but in velocity.  He believes that powerlifting can be reduced simply into force = mass x acceleration.  This is why you see him utilize bands and chains frequently in his programs and recommend that all weights be moved explosively.  

These are two very different philosophies, but both have seen tremendous success in the sport.  I think of other sports where coaches have specific systems.  Being in New England, the Patriots are front and center of the sporting world.

There have been numerous times where the Pats have brought in Pro Bowl caliber talent that were not able to understand the offense or defense.  These players just struggled to fit into the system in which the Patriots were running.  The coaches attempt to put them into positions to help them succeed in the system, but they do not revamp their entire system to fit the athlete.

Now, powerlifting being an individual sport is a bit different, but there are some similarities here.  A coach needs to have some type of system in place that allows them to not only get results in the short term, but to develop talent in the long term.

In terms of technique, this means having a specific way in which we teach the competition lifts.  I hear this from lifters frequently, “Well I am stronger in these positions.”  That may be true, but it does not mean that it is optimal for performance over the long term.

What that tells me as a coach is where our strengths and our weaknesses lie at a given time.  I want to see a lifter that sits back into a good strong arch in the squat and keeps the shins as vertical as possible.  I want a straight bar path on the bench press, and I want to see the shoulders covering the bar on the deadlift with a strong arch in the back.

I have a very thorough packet that I give to every new member of PPS that explains the technique that I am looking for in the lifts.  From there, I construct training in a way that will guide them into those positions that I feel are most optimal for long term development.

I will often get a response such as “Well, isn’t everyone different?”  The answer is most definitely yes.  The differences will come in foot width and hand width on a squat, grip width and foot placement on a bench press, and preferred style of deadlifting.  There are individual differences here.

These changes will also play to muscular strengths and weaknesses.  If someone favors a more quad dominant squat, they will just place their feet closer.  I still want to see them sit back and execute the squat in the same manner.  Of course the angles will change a bit here and that shifts the emphasis a bit.  It is still individualized, but in a way that allows us to constantly focus on achieving a more optimal squat.  

This is true of the bench press and deadlift as well.  We will train all grips and all positions throughout training because it is important to be strong at all angles.  However, we want to be strongest at the angles that are going to give us the greatest leverages to maximize our totals over the long term.  This is a long term process.

If I had a lifter that could contend for a national championship this year, it may change things quite a bit.  However, I would still try to target those weak areas and attempt to redirect technique to something that I would like to see.  The goal is to do this without losing performance.  

We do not wear raised heels when squatting.  If you can’t squat in flats, the heels just become a band-aid.  I understand that this is a very unpopular choice, especially in the raw, USAPL, circles, but it is a heuristic that I find to be important.

You cannot sit back into heels.  The purpose of the heel is to allow the shin to come forward, allowing more use of the quads.  This makes sense if you are a weightlifter.  We all put the bar on the top of our rear delts. On some occasions I will let it be a little lower, but that is rare.

This is where Sheiko wanted it on everyone.  This allows the lifter to arch the upper back and take advantage of a smaller moment arm for the thoracic extensors.  Any higher and this puts a greater demand on the back muscles and will lead to more forward knee travel.  Any lower and the lifter may not have the mobility to keep the back extended.

These are just some common technical pieces that I think most coaches allow for a lot of variability in.  I coach a lot of newer lifters and they do not know where they will be strongest yet.  With that in mind, I think it is important to set them up for long term success.

I think too often that coaches allow lifters to get away with some technical inefficiencies that will not allow them to achieve their full potential.  I used to be a lot more lax with a lot of this stuff, but over the years I have really narrowed down what I want to see in the lifts.

There is still individual variation that needs to be taken into account.  This is where foot width and grip width come into play.  This allows the lifter to work within the technical guidelines that I have constructed, while still playing to their strengths.

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