Noise and Variability of Movement

Written by: Kevin Cann

The acquisition of high level skill has always been something that has interested me.  This is probably why hearing Sheiko speak made me want him to coach me and why I lean towards using a Dynamic Systems Theory approach to training and developing the skill of strength.

Daniel Wolpert believes that the brain only exists to allow us to move.  He uses the example that all living organisms without a brain do not move.  There is even this small sea squid that is born with a brain and nervous system that eventually attaches itself to a rock, eats its own brain, and never moves again.  This is an interesting thing to think about.  As a strength coach, this definitely makes me feel important.

Think of how many issues that movement helps.  It increases health in so many ways, both physical and mental.  Training is problem solving.  You are giving the person, their brain, problems to solve in the gym.  You give them enough of the right problems and the solution becomes a PR.

We know that this does not always work.  We also know that people respond differently to the same training plans.  This is the fun part of coaching.  Coaches get to solve complex problems in trying to help lifters develop high levels of strength.

One of the reasons, if not the most significant reason, that there are individual differences in strength development is the amount of noise within the human system.  This noise varies from person to person and even influences performance at the highest of levels.  No one is perfect.

A MLB pitcher does not hit their desired location every time and NBA players do not shoot 100% from the free throw line.  There is enough noise and variability within movement at the highest of levels to make it entertaining enough for millions of people to watch.

Professional athletes are either less effected by the noise in the system, or they have a way to better deal with it.  No one is really sure of the answer here.  High level athletic performance may just be another form of genius.  Some people are better at math than others, some play the piano, and some can just do some amazing feats on a field or court.

Powerlifting is a very interesting sport.  It requires a very low level of entry as an athlete.  Anyone can squat to depth, bench press, and deadlift.  For the most part anyways.  However, developing the high level of skill required to be at the top is a completely different scenario.

As a coach, we literally get all levels of athletes.  From those that are the least skilled to those that can compete at the world level.  I am not sure any other sport has this.  This makes coaching powerlifting particularly interesting and challenging.

To simply describe our job as a coach, we are trying to minimize the effects of noise on performance.  We can do this by how we program training and how we coach our athletes.  Coaching goes far beyond writing a program.  It is guiding each athlete on developing the mental skills to pay attention to every rep, to focus, and to be in the moment.

Also, exercise selection will increase or decrease noise.  Max effort lifts will increase the noise in the system that comes from nervousness.  As the force increases, so does the noise.  As speed increases so does the noise.

When we use pauses within the lifts we are altering the speed of the movement.  There is always a speed accuracy tradeoff.  As speed increases, accuracy decreases.  A pause will slow down the lift, decreasing the noise, and allowing the athlete to execute the lift with better accuracy.  

Each lifter needs to find where on this spectrum of speed and accuracy they fit best.  The slower you move, the harder it will be to move big weights.  If you move too fast, you will lose position making it more difficult to move big weights.  This is where the coach needs to help guide each lifter.

A stronger muscle will also have less noise.  There is an inverse relationship between the number of motor units and the noise found in movement.  The more motor units, the less noise.  This may be why bodybuilding accessories have been in powerlifting programs forever.

I am not totally bought that more is better in terms of hypertrophy.  If we seek increases in hypertrophy at the coast of strength, I will not take that tradeoff.  However, there is definitely something there.  Perhaps part of it is decreasing the noise within the system.

This got me thinking about bands a bit.  Bands help to increase the speed of the movement itself due to the overspeed eccentrics.  They also anchor the bar down and control the trajectory of the movement.  This may be a way to increase the speed of a movement, while decreasing the noise that the system has to deal with.

Of course just decreasing noise is not enough.  The lifter needs to be able to handle that noise to compete.  The instability of the barbell is something that the lifter needs to learn to deal with.  A program just might need to have enough of both, exercises performed with low noise, and exercises performed with an increase in noise.

Some systems are much noisier than others.  Minimizing the effects of this noise is the main driver of success.  Part of that is deliberate practice, lots of it.  But this practice needs to be targeted.  We do not want to build bad habits.

Building habits within the movement system is important.  It is a very cost effective way to move (pun intended) through life.  However, it can work against us in the development of high level skills.

In baseball, a hitter might change his stance at the plate when he encounters a slump.  This alters the perception of the trajectory of the ball and can sometimes help.  In powerlifting we can alter our positions a bit and this can sometimes help as well.  However, there are many times it doesn’t help.

The law of accommodation states that we need to constantly change things up in order to continue getting results.  Part of this may be in the developing of habits as well.  We want to develop good habits, but not bad habits as habits are hard to break.

This is the fine line that a coach walks in developing skill.  If a coach pays little attention to this they are not setting that lifter up for long term success.  Lifters may choose particular positions that limit the noise within their movements.  This doesn’t mean that it is right.

Physics still matters.  Using angles that give us the use of more muscles and leveraging ROM as much as possible is still important.  Our job as coaches should be to guide lifters in that direction.

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