Once we have created our understanding of the movement we want to learn, teach and create mastery of the next stage is to take our understanding and to try and tear it up every time we apply it to someone we are working with.
Positivism v Falsification of hypothesis
The job of scientific inquiry or study is to try and disprove the hypothesis. Trials and studies should be set up in such a way that they should be trying to actively disprove the hypothesis or “theory”. In coaching or training, we should look to do the same when we are looking to implement new ideas, the disproval or active trialing of ideas and models is how you can actually individualize and find a model or technique that works for an individual. If we just accrue knowledge our own self-selection bias will only lead to use backing up and validating the things we believe about the technique by dismissing out of hand the information that doesn’t back up our beliefs and by taking on wholesale the bit of information that agrees with how we see it. This is known as post-positivism in the philosophy of science.
Positivists believed that objectivity was a characteristic that resided in the individual scientist. Scientists are responsible for putting aside their biases and beliefs and seeing the world as it ‘really’ is. Post-positivists reject the idea that any individual can see the world perfectly as it really is.
We develop a mental representation of reality to allow us to develop and conceptualize our understanding of it. Once that understanding has been created our job as a coach or athlete should then be to try and actively pry at it and pull it down with conflicting information and hypothesis. By systematically pulling away at our understanding then what is left is going to be the useful aspects of our mental representation. What is pulled away and discarded is going to be that which couldn’t survive active scrutiny.
This is the only real way of achieving individualisation of technique with said individual. If we try and only apply technical feedback by decree and exclude the input of the athlete or others then all we are doing is forcing what we believe to be true onto the person this isn’t coaching or individualisation it is preaching.
Using feedback to produce a more efficient technique
- Internal feedback and rates of perceived exertion – the first and easiest way to determine the efficacy of a technical cue or change is to simply ask yourself or the person you are coaching how the cue makes the lift feel. For some adaptations to technique, it might take some time for the change to click or to become part of their normal execution so if the answer isn’t instantly that feels better it still might be worth pursuing the technical adjustment. This should be put down to a judgment from the athlete, coach, or both.
- External feedback (Changes in kinematics and objective information) – viewing video footage or performing video analysis can help to give you some more objective feedback on the execution of the lift and to appraise any changes or cues you may be trialing out. If you have access to bar speed metrics then you can use those to help inform your inferences an increase in bar velocity would indicate the lift was objectively easier so could help you to inform your decisions with more objective input.
- Constant review and feedback – the final bit is to make sure the use of feedback both internal and external is a consistent process. Getting better at something you can view as water eroding away at a rock. It might take a long time before you notice any real change but after a long period of consistent work and friction, you can notice some pretty remarkable change.
Internal focus v External focus cueing and it’s effect on technique
Internal focus is determined by the athlete or participant focusing on the muscle doing the work such as focusing on the feeling the bicep during a preacher curl. External focus means focusing on something beyond the body and example of which in the same context the feedback might be to think about driving your elbows into the padding of the preacher as hard as you can.
Adopting an External Focus significantly reduced variability of the barbell trajectory and centre of pressure (COP) in the anterior-posterior direction. Mean velocity of COP was also significantly lower for the EF. Our findings suggest that adopting an EF may lead to greater postural stability when performing heavily loaded barbell movements. – Alan Chan 2019 – https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/38646
In the bodybuilding context, the mind-muscle connection is an example of internal focus and there are studies showing greater activation of the target muscle group when the subjects adopt a greater internal focus v an external focus.
The goal of strength sports however is to lift the most amount of weight not to activate the right sort of muscles. Therefore we need to pay attention to the outcomes of our cueing and interventions. It is preferable for a lifter to feel that the lift is easier or for the barbell to move faster with the same load as these outcomes are likely to have come from a greater ground reaction force which is the ultimate outcome we want in a strength sport like powerlifting.
There is a bit of a red herring when it comes to muscle involvement in compound lifts like the squat and deadlift. There is a big focus on working on your weakness for example to determine if your hips are weak relative to your quads in a squat. There will be the weakest point in any lift regardless of how your technique is performed; this is the nature of levers and how humans produce movement. This is termed as the sticking point.
The Sticking point isn’t necessarily where you are going to fail the lift
The sticking point is commonly understood to be the weakest point in a lift. It is where based on how the lifter and the barbell are oriented in space the point during that movement where the joints involved can produce the lowest amount of force. The sticking point exists in every lift however it might not be the reason that lifters fail the lift. In every successful lift the lifter must pass through the sticking point it is a fact of biomechanics that there will be a point when all levers together are weakest in a closed chain kinematic task (read compound barbell lifts).
In a study of bench press published in 2009 comparing successful lifts with failed lifts, it was their hypothesis that failure would happen during the sticking point. They showed that the sticking point occurred in all of the attempts. Yet only half of the failures occurred during the sticking point. They showed the only change in muscle activity in successful v unsuccessful occurred on lowering the weight and off the chest, which could indicate it was alteration of how the lifter was moving the weight vs the weight being too much for them to lift.
During failed attempts lifters moved the bar closer to their shoulders tin an attempt to decrease the moment arm and therefore the force required but bar didn’t have enough height so this lead to a failed lift.
In a perfect world, all things being aligned a lifter should move through the most efficient movement pattern based on their limb length, muscle strength, and how they are orientating the barbell in space during the lift. This should lead to the lifter failing the lift at the point of weakness (sticking point) or failing after the point of weakness due to a lack of momentum from slowing down through the sticking point.
However all you have to do is to watch one powerlifting meet to know that this doesn’t account for 100% of all failures if even the majority of failures.
Weak joints v Poor Technique
Typically there are two hypotheses for failing a lift I will be terming them as the weak joint and poor technique hypothesis. The weak joint hypothesis would maintain that a lack of contribution from one joint in the kinetic chain leads to an alteration in the kinematics of the lift, leading ultimately to a failed lift. An example of which would be weak knee joints in the squat causing the lifter to bias towards the hips. Leaving the hips with too much work to do and the body in too weak a position to be able to complete the rep.
An example of this theory or hypothesis in the research can be found from this study of 18 subjects in 2015. They associated a lack of force being produced by one joint was often followed by increased work from another joint, leading them to conclude
“A limiting joint, or “weak link,” may explain the failure to complete a lift. Interventions should address the limiting joint on an individual-specific basis and incorporate assistive exercises that target these deficiencies.” Flanagan et al 2015
In contrast, a study from 2018 looked at 21 lifters and a whole host of variables (anthropometric, kinetic and psychological) and concluded the only meaningful determinant of squat strength was cross sectional area/fat free mass relative to limb length (height) was the only important difference to determining squat strength. In a similar vein in 2019 Reya et all looked at the factors affecting success in elite male powerlifters and their bench press. They concluded that muscle mass and joint strength (shoulder and elbow) where the important determining factors when it came to bench press and not differences in technique.
We can conclude that the reality of the situation is probably an interplay between all of the above factors. Someone must first have a well-established technique before we can start to determine where their own personal weakness lies. Their own personal weakness is likely to manifest itself as overload in the form of niggles and injuries. The weaker joint or lesser conditioned body part is likely to creak under the load of training.
When reviewing failed lifts we should first look for any alterations in lifting strategy (changes in timing, cadence, or position) before we look to try and determine where the failed lift came from or why it was failed.
We must also be aware of where a lifter’s sticking point is in a lift so we know where to expect it and what it should look like when overcame in an efficient manner. Each lifter’s sticking point will differ since it is an interplay between their body shape, muscle architecture, and technique. As shown above, in the study comparing successful and failed bench press attempts, changes in strategy taken by the lifter can lead to failure of the lift even when the sticking point has been overcome (alterations in technique on heavy lifts).
We should also try and avoid the creation of a false narrative or look for false positives by predetermined notions of weakness in a lifter, typically it will require technical efficiency (if not mastery) and longitudinal overload before we can determine where a lifter’s weakness lies.
Using constraints to help a lifter self select more effective strategies.
Far too often coaches like to hear the sound of their own voices and are constantly looking for the nail for their hammer regardless of what is put in front of them. As we have discussed in this article it is important to have a well-established understanding of the movements in your sport and to understand what technical mastery looks like and to have mental representations of what that looks like in the flesh. However, if we rely only on verbal communication and video feedback to produce the change we desire we are always going to be left wanting and frustrated as to why athletes aren’t producing the movements or solutions we want them to use.
By having a constraint led approach to skill learning we can limit the outcomes the lifter can use to be successful in the movement we are trying to get them to learn. By choosing modifications and limitations to exercise selection we can constrain the lifter or athletes options to either our desired outcome or something that is just not a viable outcome lets explain this line of thinking and coaching with an example.
Problem – lifter constantly falls forward at the bottom of the squat.
Solutions? The lifter has weak knees and needs to work on their quad strength in isolation or lifter lacks ankle flexibility to hold the correct position at the bottom of the movement. Each of these two supposed solutions to the problem will require modifications to the program and the use of extra training time for corrective exercises.
Another angle on this problem is that you just lack the balance and awareness of how to move in the squat to keep your and the bar’s centre of mass and balance lined up during the full movement. As such we can constrain your ability to move through the movement without adopting the correct balance.
Constrain the position of the barbell.
Using either overhead squat, front squat, or zombie squat or a mixture of these exercises we can change the point of balance in the lift to make errors in positioning detrimental to the completion of the lift. If we set the expectation that the lift is completed with a full range of motion or even with the addition of a tempo or a pause then we can put the lifter or athlete in a position where they must adopt the correct positioning. For example, during an overhead squat, any deviation of the barbell’s centre of mass forward or backward of the lifters centre is going to have immediate and announced effects on the lifter’s control of the barbell since it is overhead at 1 meter or more of lever arm everything becomes exaggerated. A lifter who comes up out of the bottom of an overhead squat or front squat from a full squat position leading with the hips is going to fail the lift as the bar is going to fall forward and the lifter will lose control with sufficient load.
Constrain the point of balance of the lifter.
By putting the lifter on a surface smaller than their foot as long as it is lined up with their centre of balance we can really reinforce where the correct point of balance is for the lifter during a lift using submaximal weight. This is a thought which is much better explained and explored in this blog post
Constrain the lifters use of footwear
Footwear can add stability or add range of motion (this is literally the function of weightlifting shoes). If you mandate a lifter perform the squat barefoot and produce a good arch making sure they remain pressure through the big toe, little toe and heel. This will help the lifter to learn how they can actively encourage better movement and balance by paying attention to the positioning of their foot and creating an active arch.
Creating an approach for the individuals in front of you.
- Develop a common understanding and mental representation of what efficient or technical mastery looks like. Encourage the lifter to further their own understanding actively so they can create a more robust mental representation.
- Look to falsify your or the lifter’s mental representation at all times; don’t try and look for confirmation of your own understanding; try to undermine it as much as you can.
- Always video and review hard sets and see where you are coming undone. Only by understanding where you are failing or falling short will you know where your weakness or technical inefficiency lies.
- When you are trying different cueing or technique adjustments try and match it up to ratings of perceived effort (RPE) and objective changes in how the lift is performed and look for positive and negative changes and help this to guide your technique adjustments. Sometimes no change in objective or subjective variables means you might need to stick with an adjustment to see if it is going to have a positive or negative effect on performance.
- Pay attention to joint or tendon pain as this is normally a sign of weakness that needs to be addressed or conditioned.
- Try and use constraints and exercise selection to challenge the specific technical aspect you want to address.
- Build-in technique adjustment and adaptation into your regular training process you are never too advanced to challenge your mental representations.