Building Technique as an Emergent Property

Written by: Kevin Cann

For some reason technique in the powerlifting world seems to be quite controversial.  I have never participated in a sport that technique was not emphasized.  Seems quite a few coaches believe that as long as you can lift by the rules that your technique is fine.  I could not disagree with this statement more.

Over the years I have gone back and forth with this.  Sheiko really hammered into me the importance of technique, but the internet said otherwise, and strong lifters said otherwise.  This made me question things and become laxer with the technique.

This meant we could unleash the intensity more so of course we got stronger.  However, we got stronger until we didn’t.  Technique definitely got worse during this period of time, just like every coach with experience said.

The real eye opening situation for me came with one of my former lifters.  He was a 205lb lifter that had a 615lb squat and had pulled 601lbs at a competition.  These are very good numbers.  He worked very hard and was very consistent.  Literally the definition of putting your head down and training.

He squatted with a pretty narrow stance and very forward knees.  On his deadlifts, his knees would straighten too quickly at times, putting a lot of stress on the low back.  He would also get these nagging knee issues consistently.

We began to disagree where training needed to go.  I thought he needed more wide stance squats, and to really emphasize a box squat.  Goodmornings needed to be emphasized as well.  He had a weak lower back, and I did not feel that he would progress if we did not really emphasize this.  He disagreed and I helped him find a new coach that suited what he was looking for.

I considered him a friend, so I was still there supporting and watching at meets.  He never beat his best squat while he was with me, and never pulled 600lbs on the platform again.  I am sure this was very frustrating and demoralizing.  Besides a small bench PR thrown in there, there were not many wins to consider.

No one wants to see someone like that struggle.  This was not a “I was right!” type moment.  I felt bad for the kid and could feel his frustration.  However, it did give me some valuable information.  It helped me to understand that you are only as strong as your weakest link and there are better ways to set up lifters for long term success.

It is easy to say that he had a triple bodyweight squat and deadlift so building those areas doesn’t matter.  This lifter hit a lower ceiling than what they were capable of.  I am 100% sure of that.  Seeing this really sold me on the idea that we need to pay better attention to these things and go all in on it.

In the past I struggled with understanding how to actually get technique better under heavy weights.  We used a lot of submaximal weights for technique and it worked sometimes, but really not enough to say this is ideal.  We then lifted everything heavy.  This improved confidence, but technique wasn’t necessarily better.  So what the hell am I supposed to do?

This required actually taking a step back, taking a breath, and really thinking about it for a minute.  Physics matters.  We definitely want to lift in positions where the lifters have the greatest leverage to move the most weight over the long term.  However, they are not always strongest in these positions.

I know I can’t just tell them to lift in those positions.  That is a tough sell.  I thought about all of the areas that needed to be strong in order to be strongest in those positions.   Can’t just lift heavy, but I also can’t just use light weights.  I also need to be aware how heavy weights can negatively affect technique and performance.  

I reread all of the dynamic systems theory stuff that I had and started to really work out a plan.  If I constrained the heavy stuff enough, I could still get better with technique at heavier loads, the constraints lower the absolute weights lifted which can help for recovery, and we can blend this with submaximal work and really focus on building weak areas outside of the lifts themselves.

In many cases, I even removed the competition lifts all together and really focused on the weak areas. Lindsey was squatting with a very narrow stance and aggressive knee movement in and out.  We did primarily all box squats and really built up the goodmornings.  She also got into gear and squatted a lot in the suit bottoms.  After 60 weeks, we did our first heavy comp squat and she added 20lbs to it and hit a milestone of 315lbs.

Jess was stronger with a heels together deadlift.  This is literally the longest ROM possible.  She pulled 347lbs on the platform in December with this stance.  Her best sumo deadlift was 330lbs.  We did a lot of wide stance SSB box squats and straight knee deadlifts to really build those areas.  We also worked on her positioning a lot with eccentric deadlifts and chair deadlifts.  Jess pulled her first sumo deadlift since June and hit 348lbs.  We finally caught this stance up.  Time to keep pushing it so we pull even more.  This is how you get a larger ceiling.

Alyssa also did not perform a heavy conventional deadlift in 9 months.  We really use the sumo deadlift to build the conventional, but also the bottom positions of her squat with the frequent deficits in the sumo stance.  Her best competition pull is 391lbs and she pulled 413lbs this last week.

Dave Tate says that all weaknesses are either mental, physical, or technical.  I believe that this statement is true, but it needs to be adjusted a bit.  All weaknesses are mental, physical, AND technical.  Blending this all together is the real challenge for the coach.  It takes a lot of experience and a total understanding of the training process.  I know I got a ways to go in learning these details.

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