Developing a technical mastery model for powerlifting – creating a technical model or mental representation

There is a lot of talk in the powerlifting community when it comes to technique and form.  There are entire meme pages on Instagram whose business model is posting up people with poor form.  Both at once there exists a strong belief in what good technique looks like and that individualisation in programming is very important.

That statement might seem perfectly fine to some people but if you examine it they are diametrically opposing interpretations of reality. 

Single sample vs the mean

When we try to understand what a “perfect technical model” means for a certain sport the current methodology would be to look at the kinetics and kinematics of the movements being performed by a range of performers from different levels (elite, sub-elite, college, high school and novice for example).  Then from the observations of those performers looking at their kinematic variables (e.g. forces and velocities etc) and kinetic variables (e.g. 3D modelling, joint angles etc) comparisons would be drawn between the elite and those of lesser proficiency in the sport. From these observed differences in performance, inferences about what makes for good or perfect technical execution will be made.

An example of such a study in powerlifting was completed during the 1999 special Olympics the biggest take away from high skilled v low skilled performers of the deadlift being more skilled lifters exhibited better lifting mechanics and kept the bar closer to the body during the lift. While less-skilled lifters allowed the bar to come away more during the deadlift. You can view the study to see the changes in kinematics that resulted in the bar being further away.

Another example of such a study exists for the squat comparing novice, high school and college-level powerlifters published in 2009 their main findings where that novice and less skilled lifters had inconsistency with their depth and the less skilled lifters did not accelerate out as hard out from the hole when compared to better-skilled lifters.

The research body on the kinematics of powerlifting is not amazing. There are some studies here and there and if you go digging for it chances are you will find something.  Sports like track and field (throwing for example) and weightlifting have a much deeper field of research in biomechanics to draw from. This makes drawing up technical models of the ideal performer much easier as the data is more readily available.  There are other resources out there for powerlifting an example of which is Boris Shieko’s English translation book. It is one of the best resources I have seen for the kinematics of powerlifting. The discussion on technical modeling and discussion thereof is well worth the purchase of the book alone.

The development of technical models for each lift is pretty much an essential development point for either the athlete or the coach.  If you have an understanding of what efficient movement looks like in a lift for other or on average. Then you have a frame of reference when you are watching videos or other lifters training in real-time.

This is where the sample vs the mean comes in. The ideal thecnical model or the description of the kinematics of an efficient squat, bench press or deadlift will only show you the common traits that efficient lifters or elite performers share. It will not tell you on how those elite performers differ when it comes to their kinematics or kinetics. Individualisation is essential for developing into a more efficient or elite performer however you can’t individualise from the mean if you don’t know what the mean is.

Developing a technical model

In this day and age developing a technical model of what efficient lifting or sports performance looks like is much easier than it ever has been. You can go on youtube and watch technique tutorials and watch elite lifters performing world records for as many hours as there are videos of lifting on youtube or instagram.

The above is probably the most popular example of a bench press bar path on record or certainly in the popular online lifting conscious.  I came across this paper (and for the life of me can’t find it again) when I was researching topics for the PhD I never ended up doing in either 2008-2009 (my memory is getting worse).  The examples themselves are taken from lifts that are now 30+ years old.  That isn’t to say there is anything wrong with these examples or you can’t take anything away from the examples. Quite to the contrary, you can take away a whole bunch of information from those bar traces and they have no doubt helped hundreds if not thousands of lifters to break through a bench press plateau.  It is more of an example of how the biomechanical study of the powerlifting movements is not a massive priority in the sports science community.

The bar path commonly thought to be the best for deadlift (or at least the bar path I used to understand to be the best for deadlift) is a straight line.  Taking the bar from where it rests on the floor to lockout in a straight line.  However, if you look at someone (in this instance Boris Shieko) who has actually looked at the bar paths of a number of lifters (novice to elite) what you find to be the optimal bar path is a bar path that moves back towards the lifter and then forward at lockout as the lifter’s hips shift forward.  A small detail like the bar coming forward when the lifter locks out the barbell just goes to show one glaring inaccuracy of a technical model that is commonly taught in-person and online.  However, even with a quick bit of surface-level analysis, you could come up with the fact that the hip/thighs need to come through and occupy the space that the barbell occupies to fully extend and lockout. This would naturally cause the bar path of to move out in front of the lifter’s centre of mass.

As you can see in a lift like a snatch where the lifter takes the bar from the floor and achieves full hip and knee extension the barbell travels forward relative to the lifter’s center of mass.  When it comes to developing a technical model for a lift or movement you shouldn’t rely on one source of information or one technical model as there will be parts of one technical model that aren’t as well developed as the other.  The bias of humans affects coaches and lifters the same as it affects any human endeavor.  The more information you can take in while trying to maintain an open mind the better your technical understanding of the lift will develop.

Creating a technical model.

1 – Develop a basic and fundamental framework of understanding for the movement – pretty much every movement in sport that has been studied has been broken down into a series of movements or phrases.  These can be termed as “key points of reference” that is to say aspects of the movement that every athlete must go through.  We will go through a quick example of such phases using the deadlift as an example

  • Set up (orienting yourself towards the bar, setting your feet, getting your grip, setting your brace).
  • Liftoff (getting the bar off the floor)
  • Past knee (bar passing the knee)
  • Lockout (locking knees, hips and back in place)
  • Down (putting the bar down, after the down command in competition)

Once we have established what the common points of execution are for the lift regardless of who the lifter is we then have a skeleton or framework from where we can start to develop out technical model.

2 – Observing others – Through watching others demonstrate, talk about, and execute the movement in training we start to develop a visualisation of its execution.

3 – Executing the movement and appraising your performance against your understanding – once you have acquired a universal framework and a basic understanding of what the movement looks like and what the key things you are looking for you then begin the process of practice and self-appraisal.

4 – Having others appraise and challenge your execution – this is where a coach or training partners come in.  You are far too self-biased to rely only on your own feedback to develop your execution and skill.  If you want to progress as best possible you should hire a coach or work out with people who aren’t afraid to give you the feedback you need to hear, it’s humbling and jarring at times but if you want to grow as a lifter it’s like water and sunshine to a plant.

5 – Seek out and watch expert performers – Once you have developed your own understanding of the lift and had it challenged by others then you need to further your learning.  This can be achieved either be watching 1000s of lifts on youtube and Instagram (and by watching I mean rewinding, stepping through it and studying it in slow motion while appraising the movements) or by training with people who are better than you.  Nothing can really replace seeing experts perform in the flesh however, there is more information to be gained little details that a camera will never pick up. The ability to walk around and watch from different angles in the flesh can’t be replaced or replicated at the minute.

6 – Actively seek out dissenting voices – one of the most important things when it comes to skill learning and developing mastery is to try and stay out of your own comfort zone as much as you can.  When you develop an understanding you are confident in and are happy with the tendency can be to turtle up and decide that you have it licked.  All this leads to is stagnation and if you aren’t going forward you are going backward (a little bit og hyperbole I like) because everyone else is moving forwards.  It is really good practice to seek those with a different opinion and to listen to what they have to say as there is likely something to be learned from the experience.

If you want to further your understanding of developing and perfecting your practice and technical understanding Peak by Anders Ericson should be required reading for everyone


In the next instalment of this article we will explore how to individualise your technical model and discuss some common pitfalls and misunderstandings.


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