Understanding Variation: How Specific Should You Be?

Written by: Kevin Cann

Dave Tate of EliteFTS posted this question on Instagram the other day:

“Most coaches I speak to that only endorse the “sports specific” angle for powerlifting (only do the specific competition lifts) would have a more expanded view of the training process if they took the time to learn what dynamic correspondence is.”

The wording of this question bothers me a bit.  Explain why you do things a specific way instead of trying to put others down.  This is how we have discussions that makes the field move forward.  Anyways, I regress.

First, we need to identify what dynamic correspondence is.  Basically, it is a fancy way to say how an exercise or training program will transfer over to sports performance.  I guess transferability isn’t a catchy enough word?

Next, we need to identify what the specific competition lifts are.  The 3 lifts in powerlifting are the squat, bench press, and deadlift.  However, to be truly sports specific these lifts would need to be taken to near maximal efforts like they are on the platform.

With that said, is a set of 6 repetitions in the squat at 70% specific to the sport of powerlifting?  The movement is specific, especially if we are taking the repetitions with the bar in competition placement and feet set how we would set them in competition.  However, the weight is not specific to what the athlete will take at a competition.  In fact, my lifters don’t even take sets of 6 in warmups.

Will taking 5 sets of 6 repetitions at 70% in the squat transfer over to having a bigger squat?  Yes, because of exertion load.  Each rep gets more and more difficult.  Chances are each set gets more difficult as well.  The equation load equation is as follows:

Exertion load = weight x fatigue factor + weight x fatigue factor 2 + weight x fatigue factor 3 + weight x fatigue factor 4 + weight x fatigue factor 5 + weight x fatigue factor 6 (this is for the example above)

Science has shown us that for strength gains sets of 3-6 repetitions with 1 to 2 repetitions in reserve are best for strength gains.  So even though we are not lifting maximal weights, the accumulation of fatigue builds up, making the effort greater, and yielding a strength increase.

As long as the coach programs enough higher stress days to get strong, medium stress days to maintain strength, and lower stress days to recover this can work very well.  This is why people get stronger on these programs.

As a competition increases the program should become more sport specific.  The lifter needs to get used to hitting heavy singles to prepare for the platform.

I personally like to add variation into the programs that I write.  Boris Sheiko has been my only coach and I do things very similar to what I have done under his guidance.  One reason that I like variation is that it keeps the lifter from being bored in training.

Variation also helps to correct technique issues in the lifts.  I will analyze the lifts of all of my lifters and utilize a variation, many I have learned from Sheiko, to help fix the technical error.  Variation also helps the lifter avoid adaptive resistance.  If we constantly perform the same skill over and over, over time the athlete will stop progressing in their technique.

Lastly, variation gives the lifter a new problem to solve.  This new stimulus allows the lifter to keep progressing.  When a new exercise is put into a program the lifter is basically a “beginner” in that exercise.  As they get better at that exercise we should see some carryover into the competition lifts.

In order for the carryover to occur we need the forces, speeds, and joint angles to be similar to what they are in the competition lifts.  This is because of the law of specificity.  Due to this I choose to use only one variation at a time.  We also generally only squat low bar, bench with comp grip, and deadlift in our competition stance.  This is to maximize carryover into the main lifts.

A Safety Squat Bar box squat with chains is too far removed from the competition lift for maximal carryover.  The angles are different due to the change in bar as well as the athlete sitting down on a box.  The athlete also sits back onto the box creating a vastly different angle of the torso and the shins.

A raw lifter needs to be strong enough to accelerate maximal weight in the bottom position, past the sticking point a couple of inches above parallel.  The chain weight requires the athlete to use less bar weight.  This decreases the weight from the position in which the athlete needs to accelerate maximal weights.

Accelerating lighter weights does not lead to the athlete being able to supply enough force to move maximal weights.  Lifting lighter weights fast does not produce maximal force.  In order, for the lifter to produce maximal force time is needed as well as bar weight.  Not to mention lighter weights require a different movement pattern than lifting heavier weights.  This is why we see technique get better with some weight and sometimes breakdown when it gets towards maximal.

The weight in the difficult positions in raw lifting needs to be trained with adequate intensity to increase the lifter’s ability to generate force.  This goes back to what we talked about earlier with exertion load.

A set of 10 repetitions is very easy at first and maybe the last 2 to 3 repetitions are difficult.  Those last 2 to 3 repetitions are where the strength gains are made (higher rep sets may be better for hypertrophy).

For a set of 10 a lifter may need to use 65-70% of 1 RM.  The set of 6 repetitions gives us a greater exertion load because 2-3 times the number of reps is going towards making us stronger.  If I only want 2 to 3 harder repetitions I will get more from using 80-88% of 1RM.  If we are using much lighter loads in these positions than there will not be much carryover for strength increases.  Typical “speed work” is too light to carryover to technical improvements or strength increases.

There are many different ways to program for powerlifting successfully.  Raw lifters have different needs than multiply lifters.  They are vastly different sports.  Some variations that work for multiply lifting will not be optimal for the raw lifter.

Those raw powerlifting coaches that have success might do things differently, but they also have lots in common.  Make sure to ask them questions and also look at the athletes that they actually coach.  Do they coach strong raw powerlifters?  The proof is always in the pudding.

I cover programming extensively in my new book “Precision Powerlifting Systems”

Order it here

About Kevin Cann 33 Articles
Precision Powerlifting Systems is based out of Boston, Mass. Head Coach Kevin Cann leads the raw and single ply powerlifting team through individualized programming leading up to local, regional, national, and international level USA Powerlifting meets. Coach Kevin has worked as a nutritionist and strength coach for several facilities in the greater Boston area including Harvard University and Total Performance Sports. He holds a master’s degree in kinesiology from A.T. Still University and a bachelor’s degree in health and wellness from Kaplan University. Currently, Coach Kevin competes in the 105kg class in USA Powerlifting as both a raw and equipped open lifter and was under the tutelage of former team Russia powerlifting coach and coaching legend, Boris Sheiko, from 2015-2018. Kevin utilizes many of Sheiko’s legendary methods in his programs. This includes the belief that technique is the most important aspect of training. Not only has Kevin been a long term student of Sheiko’s, he also possesses his Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, the science of human movement. The combination of his Master’s degree and time spent working with the legendary coach has awarded him with the skills to thoroughly analyze your lifts and utilize the right variations, weights, and repetitions to improve your technique and continue to steadily progress over time. Through Kevin’s experiences coaching, he has made many adjustments to the program to allow for the success of his lifters. PPS has had an Arnold qualifier every year in its existence, a top 5 national total, 2 top 10 totals, and many top 20 totals nationally. Kevin combined what he learned from Sheiko with a conjugate trining style. He learned that nothing builds 1RM strength like practicing singles. He uses a constraints-led approach with the singles. The variation allows for the athlete to continually take max singles without seeing a decrease in performance. Kevin will use variations that punish technical inefficiency and only leaves room to complete the task with a more technically efficient strategy. Heavy singles also works the psychological components of the sport. Oftentimes this goes untrained and is the largest weakness in a lifter. Along with the max effort work, PPS lifters perform sub maximal work to continue to increase technical proficiency within the lifts. Some of this technique work utilizes special exercises that Kevin learned from Boris Sheiko himself. PPS supports raw, drug free powerlifting. Kevin has coached numerous athletes that have qualified for USAPL Nationals as well as the USAPL competitions at the Arnold Sports Festival. Cost for coaching is tiered and ranges from $125 to $200 per month depending on the services required. This includes an individualized program based around your needs as an athlete as well as feedback on your lifts from videos. Text support as you are training, weekly voice memos explaining details about the upcoming week, and bi-weekly training meetings with the team to discuss training concepts is part of the tier 1 service. For more information email Kevin directly at kevin@precisionpowerlifting.com