What is a Constraints-Led Approach: Constraints-Led Conjugate

Written by: Kevin Cann

The constraints-led approach (CLA) is a teaching/coaching methodology that utilizes task, environmental, and performer constraints to elicit self-organization in skill development.  This is viewed more as a “hands-off” approach to coaching where the coach creates an environment that offers learning for the performer instead of using a lot of verbal feedback.

Typically, we see a program of high frequency competition lifts with a coach that gives verbal feedback through the viewing of training videos.  The lifter then tries to use that verbal feedback to execute the following sets. This is an ineffective means of getting people stronger.

Elite performance does not exist in the conscious brain.  In fact, proprioception is a subconscious act and our bodies are designed to learn movement through experiencing it as we navigate our environment.  No one gave you cues to walk, but over time you developed the skill to walk, then jog, then skip, and sprint.

This environment needs to be structured in a way that allows us to experience a variety of tasks so that we can develop a strong skill base to pull from and to self-organize into the best athlete that we can become.  The human is much more complex than volumes and intensities.  

The environment also includes socio-cultural aspects as well, not just the immediate physical environment we are in.  We have multiple environments we need to navigate through our day.  We have macroenvironments and microenvironments.  Macro would be our work and home environments in most cases and micro can even be who we decide to follow on Instagram.  Some are in our control, but some are not.  Therefore, lifters need tools to manage these environments to conserve as much mental energy as possible for training.

Louie did this with me in the fall of 2020.  When I executed a box squat, he told me I was getting a lot of movement through my lower back and that I needed to strengthen my hips.  He gave me some ideas on exercises to perform to help that.  He didn’t use cues to adjust my technique, but instead gave me a task with a built-in constraint to help me.  A wide stance sumo forces me to push out on my feet and use my hips due to the positions of the lift.

The constraints are placed on the performer, environment, and tasks.  The performer includes all physical and psychological components.  The environment we discussed above, and the task is the actual exercise.  All human movement emerges from the interaction of constraints.

From the constraint we have action AND perception.  This is my favorite example that I read somewhere.  We walk into an office building, and we can choose between the stairs and the elevator.  This is typically based on our mood, but say we are there for a job interview.  We might view the stairs as a task that will make us sweaty and out of breath for the interview, so we opt for the elevator.  This is our perception driving action.

Maybe we start on the stairs and realize it is further than we thought, and we decide to take the elevator after a few flights of walking.  This again is perception driving action.  A famous quote by James Gibson is, “We must perceive in order to move, but we must also move in order to perceive.”

If we think that a weight is too heavy, then chances are we might move with fear or avoid challenging ourselves all together.  Therefore, training needs to have consequences as it brings our perceptions and beliefs to the forefront and allows us to challenge them in a safe and constructive way.  This is where confidence is built.  

If we do not encounter scary weights in training, these thoughts will come about when our performance matters most.  This can lead to a lot of meet day anxiety and a less fun experience.  We have fun at meets because we train heavy all the time.  We perceive those actions in a different light.

This action-perception coupling takes place for every single human movement.  It is very important to maintain this link when designing training programs.  Errors are also viewed as an important part of the learning experience.

Bernstein, the brilliant Russian sports scientist, said we want to achieve “Repetition without repetition” in training.  This is how the body learns best.  We aren’t trying to reproduce one standard model, but instead we are exploring the use of different stances, grips, angles, bars, and even how the weight is applied to the bar with the use of bands and chains.

Groups that promote a high frequency competition lift program might say that individual technique is important, but the construction of their program is telling each individual there is only one way to move.  It does not promote individualization of movement.  They become stuck moving in how they are currently moving.

I have ideal mechanics for each lift.  This has led many to believe that I do not promote individualization of movement.  This is an error on their behalf because we are constantly varying the movements in training allowing the lifter to explore various options.  Over time they self-organize closer to that mechanistic ideal.  They are encouraged through training to explore other options and ultimately will always lift where they are currently strongest.

The laws of physics still apply to strength training.  There are outliers that will squat a lot of weight with their feet very close and torso very bent forward.  This does not mean that it is the most efficient way to squat.  This doesn’t mean that it is the most efficient way for them either.  They may be strongest there, but it isn’t efficient.  

The more inefficient a lift, the more work and force required to lift it.  This will limit our abilities to train with higher volumes.  The more efficient we are, the less force and work required to lift the weights.  This reduces the recovery cost of the exercise.  We choose to lift from inefficient positions at times, a deficit deadlift, because it increases our force output.  I would not want to spend my time trying to mimic what an outlier is doing.  Chances are, you are not one.  Even if you are, at some point those positions will matter and if the environment is set up in a way for you to explore, you won’t be stuck and frustrated, but instead you will have options to keep performance moving in the right direction and to keep frustration from increasing your desire to quit the sport.

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