Correcting Max-Effort Technical Deviations
By Mike Tuchscherer, 10 September 2017
I’ve written before about why I think including assistance work is a good idea. And I do mean *assistance* work, not just supplemental work. And the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that this is the best way to develop strength over the long term.
Quick aside on exercise classification before we get started…
Competition Exercise: The exercise as it’s performed in competition. If you squat low-bar in competition, then high bar squats are not a competition exercise. If you wear a belt in competition, beltless work is not a competition exercise.
Assistance Exercise: Exercises that are very closely related to the competition exercise, but contain 1-2 small changes to give the lift a certain emphasis. Things like pause squats, deadlifts with chains, or board presses all fall into this category.
Supplemental Exercise: Exercises that train the same muscles, but not the same movements. Usually trained for higher reps as well. Exercises like lunges, military press, and good mornings fit into this category.
At this point, most lifters understand the need to train the competition lifts. A good number also include things that fit into the supplemental category. But the Assistance category is still the most misunderstood and misused (if it’s used at all). I’d like to outline another way of looking at this category of movement. First, I’d like to say that I still stand by what I wrote in “A Case Against Specificity” (linked above). This is to be viewed as “in addition to” those arguments.
Nearly every lifter I’ve seen has some sort of technical deviation at heavy loads. It’s even a thing that we all agree on – maximum effort lifts are often not pretty lifts. Technical deviations are nearly universal, and by definition, they are detrimental in some way. The exact nature of the detriment varies by the type of deviation and the severity, but outcomes range from reduced performance ability to increased injury risk.
So technical deviations are bad, yet they almost always happen with a heavy enough load. I would go a step further to claim that these deviations are most often caused by a weak link in the chain. A weak muscle group, a motor pattern that is underprepared, etc. It’s certainly not the result of incorrect practice – many lifters train with much better technique than they exhibit on maximum lifts. It’s not the result of inattention – attempting a maximum weight is some of the most mentally focused time that many of us experience. The lifter is trying as hard as they can to move the weight and yet they experience some breakdown that is at best inefficient and a performance cost.
If the breakdown is bad and it doesn’t have a proximal psychological cause, then what should we do about it? I like to address such things at every level of exercise selection. The competition lift should be trained with perfect form. The Assistance exercises should be selected to emphasize the weak skill so the lifter can practice it with added focus. The Supplemental exercises should be selected to train the weak muscle groups so those muscles are better able to generate torque.
But before you accept my method out-of-hand, let’s think about it a bit more deeply. If we accept that the technical deviation seen at heavy load is not desirable and also an indicator of what we need to get better at, the most direct way to fix it would be to practice the lift with perfect form and no technical errors. In fact, that’s what many coaches do – provide a very heavy emphasis on competition exercise, very little or no assistance exercises, perhaps some supplemental exercises.
What would we expect to happen if we took that approach to the extreme? What if we trained only with endless volumes of highly submaximal sets? What would happen if we squatted 75% for sets of 3. You could do enough sets that it was challenging for the lifter and they improved their overall strength. They could practice with perfect technique. But would the technical deviations seen with heavy weights go away? No – at least not to the degree that they could. The reason is simple – the lifter was never challenged in a specific way. Technique with 75% would have improved and that would surely have limited transfer to other intensity ranges, but the lifter was never challenged in a way that was highly similar to the way he’d be challenged with maximal loads.
Thankfully, that kind of extreme is not what most good coaches do. If you want to improve technique at maximum using the competition exercises, you must choose a weight and a rep count that is challenging to the lifter. It must require the lifter to be attentive to their technique and try really hard to do it correctly. This will have transfer. But even then, you’ll find some lifters responding to this slowly. In fact, many lifters will. Those best suited for the lift you are training will adapt more easily to training the competition lift. With others, it just won’t click.
This is where Assistance exercises come in. As mentioned previously, these exercises emphasize part of the competition movement. If a lifter is struggling with chest fall in the squat, training with challenging loads in the competition lift will help. But training pin squats will have the lifter continue squatting, but it puts a distinct challenge in front of them that requires them to execute the lift properly. If they don’t, the lift is harder.
The immediate reward/punishment of a well selected assistance exercise helps on multiple levels. First, the feedback helps the lifter psychologically. It can be frustrating training the competition exercise always being mindful of a technical execution that feels unnatural. Often, a well selected assistance exercise will feel most natural when executed properly. Second, the feedback helps the psychomotor execution as well. The movement is easier when executed properly, which is good in itself and also allows the lifter to use more weight (which they generally like). If executed improperly, the lift is much harder. The lifter begins to feel what proper execution feels like even with heavier loads and higher efforts. And finally, it helps from a physical strength standpoint. It trains the muscles that need to be trained in the way they need to be trained in order to continue progressing.
Now you may be thinking that appropriate use of the competition exercise can also accomplish all of those things. And for the most part you’d be correct (with the exception of #1). However, this is not an easy thing to accomplish. Correcting max-effort technical deviations with only the competition lift requires you to train close to the technical breakdown without allowing it to happen. This would be best done with an experienced coach on hand to adjust the load, provide cues, immediate feedback, and reward/correction. In most training environments seen in Powerlifting, that’s not possible.
Given the realities of the training environment for most Powerlifters today, I see a combination of RPE training for the competition lift, well selected assistance exercises, and targeted supplemental exercises as being the best way to improve those max-effort technical deviations. And that is the best way to improve overall strength. A coach’s role is very important as they still provide the parameters and the feedback, but since the feedback is not immediate, other tools need to be used to improve the outcomes for lifters.
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|About the Author
Mike Tuchscherer is the owner and head coach at RTS. He has been powerlifting since 2001 and since has traveled all over the world for competitions. In 2009, he was the first man from USA powerlifting to win a gold medal at the World Games – the highest possible achievement in powerlifting. He has coached over a dozen competitors at the world championships, a score of national champions, and multiple world record holders.