Critical Theory in Powerlifting

Written by: Kevin Cann

I discussed this with PPS last night during our bi-weekly team meeting.  I think that this is a fun topic and actually one that is relatively important.  Understanding these social theories and how they influence research and ideas can be very important to identifying a bias and making decisions.

I like to read.  I read on average about a book per week.  These books vary in their topics and range from social theories, economics, coaching philosophy, and other theories.  I feel it is important to read many different subjects and to view them through the lens of a coach.  This helps me to think more creatively at times and to think about problems from different angles.

Critical Theory, as it is utilized in the postmodern world, is a deconstructive world view that aims to tear down the system by replacing objective truth with subjective feelings.  Objective truth is deconstructed through, usually massive assumptions, about where the objective truth comes from.

I started reading about social theories because I was curious why so many millennials decide to trash Westside Barbell and Louie Simmons.  Interestingly enough, this age group is important.  According to some scholars, there was this postmodern critical theory shift that occurred around 2010.

Postmodern critical theory was a modern shift away from the original theory that was developed in the Frankfurt School around 1930.  At the time, this was not an applied theory, but one that was just taught in academia. 

In 2010 something shifted, and these ideas seeped out into the mainstream.  In the beginning, critical theory just basically complained about everything.  Its massive deconstructive nature was actually a turn off for a lot of people.  Over time, this shifted and evolved into a social theory that could be applied to politics and other subjects.  In fact, I probably need to be careful of what I say here because of applied postmodern critical theory.  “Cancel culture” is a part of this.  I am half-kidding about being careful of what I say.  I do not think powerlifting is a very heated subject matter, or maybe it is?

“Cancel culture” even exists in the powerlifting world.  I saw a reshare of a Westside post that stated, “Why is Westside still a thing?”  Open debate is not something that this person is looking for.  I know, because I have tried before.  If you try, you will be called names such as “stupid.”

There has been this shift in theoretical work that has focused on the perceptions, expectations, experiences, and beliefs of the individual.  It has given as much weight to this, if not more, than the objective scientific truth.  This is critical theory.  It knocks down objective truth in favor of subjective feelings.

We see buzzwords such as the “lived experience” of the person.  Lived experience used to be called anecdotal evidence, but it now holds a lot more weight in some theoretical circles.  I have been caught up in the middle of this at times too.

I read a lot of research.  This stuff is fascinating to me.  It is easy to get sucked down an intellectual rabbit hole that looks good on paper, but its practical application in the real world is lacking quite a bit.

Other words such as “epistemology” which is the understanding of where knowledge comes from.  In critical theory, knowledge is assumed to come from, and be in favor for, the majority class of people.  This creates a structured system that holds the minority down.  In the Marxist version of critical theory this was focused on economic class.

In order for critical theory to be applied to other fields, certain changes need to be made to it (although those other issues that critical theory brings up with minority groups will also be present, but this is not the place to discuss that).  The knowledge is power concept, and language as a weapon, are pieces we see in the literature in pain science, as well as a focus on the subjective feelings of the individual, the perceptions, beliefs, experiences, and so on.

The doctor can never truly understand a person’s pain experience and needs to listen to them and try to understand it through the viewpoint of the patient.  This is an example of subjective feelings driving the car over the objective truth of science and the doctor.  The person’s experience is theoretically suggested to be more important.

If everyone has been reading this for a while, you have definitely seen me use those words and explain the importance of these theoretical concepts.  In fact, I swung the pendulum too far in that direction and have gradually worked my back to reality.

Now, I am not saying that all of this bad.  In fact, I think that some of this is very important to take into consideration.  However, we need to be aware of how much emphasis we put into the theoretical, and how much we put into the current science we have.

This is why I always go back and reread certain texts such as Super training and Science and Practices periodically.  It helps to keep me grounded and keeps my head out of the clouds for too long.  Worrying about the epistemology of language, will not help out the person in front of you.  A fun read on your spare time.

Progress happens incrementally over time.  We had a scientific revolution in the 1970s in this field.  It was the Golden Age of strength research.  We cannot throw out everything that we learned in favor of subjective feelings.

Louie said it best, “Math should dictate training, not feelings.”  We get beginner lifters that think they should tell the coach the frequencies they need, what technique works best for them, the type of program that works best, and so on.  This is the “lived experience” of the lifter.  This is also known as anecdotal evidence.

This extends into the thoughts about the coach-athlete relationship.  Many think that this means that the coach needs to listen and adopt the subjective feelings of the lifter into the program.

I just finished reading “The Dynasty”, a book about the Patriots.  Bill Belichick and Tom Brady never had a relationship outside of football.  However, they were in sync on the field.  I have a feeling Sheiko did not care about the feelings of the Russian lifters, and no one seems to get along with Louie, but they have had high levels of success.

I am not saying that the input from the lifter should not matter.  I have conversations with my lifters all of the time and we make decisions based off of those conversations.  However, this is a democracy until it is not.  If they do not like an exercise that I give them, too fucking bad.  

The athlete needs to trust the coach’s knowledge and expertise and buy into the program.  The coach does not need to build the program to fit the emotional needs of the lifter.  I used to do that, and it does not work.

A program can be flexible and adaptable based off of the general principles of strength training, with some of the theoretical sprinkled in.  For example, the Principle of Dynamic Organization states that the body will always look for a more efficient way to complete a movement.  Repetitions are important for enhancing technique under this principle.

We add in a Dynamic Systems Theory approach.  This suggests using constraints to help guide the technique more efficiently.  This also takes into account the psychological components of the lifter.  This is how we blend the general principle with the theoretical.

This is also why our programs look different from Westside.  Louie focuses on dynamic effort days with accommodating resistance.  We use variations that are self-limiting and target various angles.  We also differ from Sheiko, because we use max effort lifts to build not only the physical, but the mental components of the sport.  These variations are also usually self-limiting based off of the constraints being used.

All 3 of these programs follow the general principles of strength training.  The general principles are our objective truths.  I teach the lifts in a specific way that was taught to me by Sheiko.  The individual differences will be with grip width, foot width, angle of toe flail, arch height, and deadlift stance.  The proper execution of these lifts should follow some objective biomechanical truth in my opinion.

This is why we all wear flats and try to keep a more vertical shin angle in the squat.  This sets up for better long-term results.  People will argue that everyone is different, and technique does not have a large effect on performance and injury.  I have even said these words at one point.  Again, this is missing a more objective truth.

If I deadlift 600lbs with my hips rising, back rounding, and hard torso lean at the top, my low back is doing most of the leg work (pun intended).  If I keep the back arched and use my legs, the load gets distributed over a wider area of the body.  Load management and injury is an objective truth.  This allows me to manage the load better and train more.

There is a reason why the coaches and lifters that have been around for a long time speak of the importance of technique.  Most coaches and lifters in this sport, have been in the sport for less than 5 years.  Sometimes it is best to just listen, apply it, and understand it over time as you develop more experience.

Sheiko did not care what someone’s best lifts were.  If that lifter had poor technique, they would lift less weight with good technique and build it up over time.  He had an extremely low injury rate with his teams and a very high level of success at the international level doing it this way.

Who am I to say he is wrong?  Who are those younger lifters to say that Westside is wrong?  We can’t blow up all of the progress we have made in the strength sports to focus on more theoretical practices.  We need to live in the real world and progress step by step by making adjustments as needed.

This does not mean that lifter’s beliefs and shit don’t matter.  They do to a certain point.  They just cannot be driving the car.  

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