Creating and Environment for Change

Written by: Kevin Cann

The coach’s job is to be a facilitator of the environment for the athlete to self-organize into the skills that will make them the best athlete possible for their sport.  This requires much more than just analyzing sets and reps at a given intensity.

There are four different things that promote change within the environment.  They are variability, instability, constraints, and overload.  Most programs that you see for powerlifting on the internet only focus on the overload part.  This is where the forces and/or timing demands of the movement are altered, usually by adding more weight.  In a conjugate program you might see a lifter or coach add more bands or chains.

At some point, you will need to use all the tools in your toolbox to continue to make progress.  Variability requires a different movement strategy to execute the lift.  This could be a different bar or using a box.  We adapt to our environment, and it is much more complex than just the gym.  Our real-world environment is constantly changing, so we are designed to learn through variability.

Our body is also designed to conserve energy, so in a predictable environment, the movement solution is pushed into the central pattern generators and becomes habitualized.  We are looking to constantly adapt, so this is not a strategy we want unless we are close to a competition.  By constantly varying the exercise we get the attention network turned on and set the stage for improving coordination.  This is how elite athletic performance is created as well.  Athletes compete in sports, where no game is ever the same twice, and over a long period of time develop high levels of coordinated skill to fit that environment. 

Instability is exactly what the word means.  This is typically seen when an athlete or lifter is constantly getting knocked out of position.  We see this often with powerlifters as weights become heavier.  Adding chains to a bar can create some instability.  A cambered bar has a large drop where the plates are loaded which actually makes the weight swing forward creating instability in the movement.

Often coaches will try to correct instability by slowing down a lifter and having them pause.  This creates the appearance of more stability, but due to the drop in force it may not be the best solution.  Dr. Dietmar Schmidtbleicher of Germany discusses stochastic resonance in his research.  This is when we add more noise to an already noisy system.

When we have instability in a movement pattern, we have too much noise.  However, by adding more noise, say with a cambered bar box squat with chains, the body is forced to filter it out better to maintain balance. This creates a stronger signal.  It is a very interesting paradox.

Constraints are situations where the typically chosen movement strategy is disallowed by the task or the environment.  If we squat with our toes touching a wall, our knees cannot be driven forward and another squat solution must be found.  Bands are a constraint because they accommodate resistance.

With straight weight under 75%, and under 85% for more elite athletes, there will be initial acceleration followed by a deceleration as leverages improve.  These leads to a movement strategy that matches that curve.  With bands the lifter must continue accelerating the weight to lockout to overcome the increased tension as leverages improve.  If they do not, they will not execute the lift.  The appropriate amount of band tension or chain weight is very important here.

An Anderson squat or dead press where the bar starts on the pins, is a constraint as well because it removes the stretch shortening cycle.  An explosive athlete cannot rely on that movement strategy to overcome the weights.  Any deviation from a straight bar path will be very tough to overcome as well so this can help to increase efficiency within the movements.  You can still drive down with the upper back into the bench to get that reversal energy (see Newton’s laws) and this can help teach that movement as well.

You can only utilize overload for so long.  It can work well in the beginning, and for the first few years as the athlete is getting bigger, building more muscle, and tapping into using more motor units.  However, overload can only move as fast as adaptation and cannot be programmed to be faster.  Once overload exceeds our adaptive capabilities, injuries will occur.  This is where other strategies will need to be utilized and adaptation happens slower and slower as you gain experience.

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