The Cognitive Squat

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The Cognitive Squat
By Mike Tuchscherer

I’m a very cognitive person. I think through everything – even when I lift I like to stay very mentally engaged. Lots of guys shout and yell before a big attempt. Not me. I even prefer silence as it lets me focus better.

One thing I’ve struggled with in the past is the depth of my squats in training. This has only rarely been a problem in a contest, especially in recent years, but it makes me wonder how much better of a competitive squatter I could be if I simply trained how I compete.

It took a lot more than this simple realization to make a difference in my training. At least for me, it wasn’t just “squat deeper” and voila. A whole array of technique cues needed to be lined up for me to squat well. I broke the lift up into a few phases and I developed a mental checklist that I think to myself as I execute each rep. That checklist helped my consistency immensely and that’s what I’d like to share with you today.

Walkout
Each person has their own nuances to their setup under the bar, but the process is always the same. For me, the first thing I do is get my grip set right. This is my link to the weights and it needs to be perfect. Too far apart and I’ll have trouble keeping my upper back tight. Too narrow and it will bother my shoulders. The key is getting it just right. Then, I set my feet under the bar. Same thing here – I try to place them the same every time.

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A Case Against Specificity

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Pendulums swing to and fro. That’s what pendulums do. I see another pendulum swinging lately and this one has to do with exercise specificity. Not long ago, the pendulum was as far away from specificity as it gets. Lots of lifters and popular writers talked about what assistance exercises drove their lifts the most. In powerlifting, you had guys who never actually trained the contest lifts, yet did all manner of other lifts with varying degrees of non-specificity. I’ll admit that at one time I bought into this, but I’m happy to say I was impressionable at the time and have since grown out of it.

Contrast that with what we see growing in popularity over the last couple of years. There has been a resurgent popularity in the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands). By in large I would say this is a very good thing, but like all things it can be taken too far. Some lifters are even ahead of this current trend and train only in hyper-specific ways (for example, ONLY perform their contest lifts and perform them using extreme loads at all times). The pendulum is swinging in this direction more, so I expect this to grow even more in popularity before it stops.

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Restoration Blocks

(C) Copyright 2015 Adam Palmer
Photo courtesy 9for9 Media

A friend of mine used to tell me “health is cumulative.” What he meant was that you could think of your health like a bank account of sorts. Doing certain things added to your overall state of health. Other things subtracted from it. And if you work yourself into a hole, you’ve got to work yourself out of it again.

The same concept applies in the strength world. There are some things that you need to do to stay injury-free. You can neglect them for a while, but the longer you do, the more risk you take. Often, this comes in the form of neglected muscle groups, but can also include other aspects of overall fitness (flexibility / mobility, energy systems, etc).

Recently I was having a conversation about this with another coach. We were both remarking that high-specificity training (even extremely high specificity) undeniably gets good results in the short-to-mid term. But left unchecked for longer periods of time, lifters get injured. We know that a major key to long term progress is avoiding injury. So this very-high-specificity training cannot be a long term solution to your progress.

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Why Speed Work Doesn’t Work

So this article is about why speed work doesn’t work — at least not for the reasons you think it does. I’m sure this article will make some people rejoice and make other people pretty upset. And for myself, since I rarely write articles that get such a divided response, I’ve gone over this quite a few times just to double check and make sure I’m not saying anything crazy.

My claim: It’s my professional opinion that “speed work” is not the optimal method for developing maximal force, particularly for trained powerlifters. Let’s stop there as this will give us plenty to talk about….

Speed Work Defined
For now, let’s define speed work as anything under a 7 RPE. If you complete a set and you could have done 5 or more reps, it counts as speed work. If you’re doing doubles or triples with less than 75%, it probably counts. If you’re doing singles with less than 85%, it probably counts. If this is just a warm-up to your heavier work, then it probably doesn’t count as speed work.

Just for the sake of clarity, I’d say those percentages are bottom-tension percentages of a 1RM in whatever lift it is that you’re doing. Usually peak force is at the bottom of a lift like the squat or bench, so this seems to be the most relevant number. Also for the record, I tend to place more value on the RPE than the percentage, but I figured I’d put percentages up as guidelines since a lot of you don’t use RPE yet.

Reason #1: Force Output During Speed Work Is Crap
If you attempt a squat in a meet and grind it for 15 or 20 seconds, but complete the lift for white lights, yet your competitor completes the same weight in 3 seconds, who wins? Assume both of you move up 5 pounds and miss. The answer is you tie (or win/lose based on bodyweight which is pretty much a tie) because there is NO time component to powerlifting. Despite the name, power (in the physics sense) is not what you care about as a powerlifter. You care about force. It’s common meathead knowledge that force equals mass times acceleration and many of you can cite Russian manuals that state, in theory, you can maximize force by maximizing the mass on the bar or the acceleration.

I’m here to tell you that doesn’t work in reality. I’ve tested it.

Peak force production is tied to the weight on the bar. Are you trying to maximize force? Add weight. In real life, you won’t be able to accelerate enough to produce force like you can in a max lift. No way around it. Sure, a set done with maximum acceleration will produce more force than one done with an even tempo. But only if the weight on the bar is similar. If you always accelerate maximally, you will produce more force if the weight on the bar is heavier, even though acceleration is less.

For those who want a reason why, here it is. It takes time for your body to ramp up to maximum force (Fmax). In a heavy lift the bar speed is slow enough to get there (or get close). In a light lift, the bar speed is too fast for you to have time to get to Fmax.

Force, the most important quality for a powerlifter, is not practiced with speed work. Doing speed work does not produce maximal force. In theory it should, but in real life it doesn’t. My numbers indicate that even at 75% of 1RM (too heavy to be considered “speed weight” by most), force production is still only 85%. When you consider that increasing the weight to 90% or 95% yields near-maximum levels of force production, it’s easy to see that when it comes to practicing your ability to produce force, you can’t beat heavy weights. And if you’re worried about spending too much time with 90-95% loads, please read my previous article “You are not overtrained”. Don’t be scared.

The Data
I’ve gathered data on peak force production values in each of the three powerlifts by measuring force with a tendo unit as well as using motion analysis software on videos of the three powerlifts. Peak force production with highly sub maximal weights (defined above) does not approach peak force production values generated by heavier weights REGARDLESS OF INTENT TO ACCELERATE. Sure, trying to accelerate produces more force than NOT trying to accelerate. But it still doesn’t produce as much force as using a heavy weight. Measurements of peak force production using 75% of 1RM were approximately 85% of the peak force that was measured when using 90% of 1RM for the same number of reps. In other words, lighter weights produced about 85% of the peak force value that the heavy weights did.

During peer review, many thought using peak force production was an error and instead I should use average force production. I did collect data on that and average force production was even more linked to bar weight than peak force. I decided to look at peak force because that was the variable that responded more to outside influences. Things like intent to accelerate, fatigue, and load all affected peak force. Load was the only factor that seems to affect average force.

The real question in any training discussion is not “what works”. Rather, you should ask, “What is optimal?” As Dr. Hatfield says, it’s always a question of good, better, best. The evidence shows we can get higher peak force production by increasing the RPE beyond 7. To do this, should increase the weight until you are getting RPEs of 8+ for the number of reps you are performing.

Additionally, if you’re seeking a greater volume of work, I think doing that volume with higher peak force values will be more beneficial unless you are having recovery issues (and then speed work acts as a band-aid for a larger problem). If you’re trying to support muscle mass or develop your technique, I’d suggest that there are better options out there than doing speed work. Even for pure power development, I think there are better options available. Remember, good Better BEST!

As I’ve stated, power itself does not play a large role in powerlifting. Sure, there IS a time limit when exerting Fmax. You can’t just grind away all day. But the time component is limited by your ATP and Creatine Phosphate stores. At maximum intensity, these can last around 10 seconds. So if you’re not grinding out 1RMs for longer than 10 seconds, you aren’t limited by your ATP/CP. And even if you do take longer than 10 seconds to complete a maximum attempt, studies have shown it only takes .15 seconds and .25 seconds to reach Fmax in pulls. My own measurements show time to Fmax as being significantly less (.10 to .17 seconds) in movements with an eccentric component. If you’re slow, that still leaves you 9.75 seconds to grind away. If you could double your RFD (which would be quite a feat), that still only gets you an extra .125 seconds. I can’t remember seeing a lift and thinking, “Man, if he could have just kept grinding another .125 seconds, he would have gotten it!” I think a powerlifter’s training economy would be better spent developing a higher Fmax rather than focusing on RFD.

And before anyone balks at the apparent contradiction, let me clarify – it only takes a quarter of a second or so to reach Fmax. But when using lighter weights, the measured Fmax is LOWER than the Fmax that is measured with heavier weights. That’s a narrow difference, but an important one.

Reason #2: Technique Is Not Perfected
This is where my observation of the data ends and my interpretation of it begins.

If you have decent form (i.e. you know what good form is and you can demonstrate it with light weight), then speed work will not help you get better. The weights are typically so light that they involve a different motor pattern than will be used on heavy weight. Besides, it makes far more sense to do technique practice with a weight that challenges your technique (and thus requires you to pay attention and practice) than to do technique practice with something easy.

Increased strength is an adaptation of the human body. The body adapts to stressors and when it does, it supercompensates. Couple that with knowledge of mylination, skill development, and the data above and I think it’s fair to say that doing speed work as defined in this article will most likely not increase peak force production values. The primary drivers of success in powerlifting are force production and technique (mostly because good technique supports force production).

With that being said, speed work has other training effects that may or may not help you reach your goals. It gets you more training volume, which is almost always good. This can support muscle mass, improve skill to somewhat, and improve power generation. It’s important to note that power generation typically won’t matter to a powerlifter, but it is probably more important to other athletes. It’s also possible that speed work sessions are easier to recover from than bouts with heavier weights, though some people have the opposite experience.

Peak force production is tied to the weight on the bar.

The Drama
I’m not trying to engage anyone in religious debate. If you care about your training method with religious fervor — to the point where you’re unwilling to try to understand my arguments or form logical ones of your own, then please don’t try to talk training with me. I don’t insist that everyone agree with what I say, but it’s a good thing for everyone to challenge their own assumptions from time to time. I’m willing to have a mutually respectful discussion on this or any training topic. Similarly, if you do speed work and I question its effectiveness, it doesn’t mean I’m disrespecting your guru of choice. Nobody gets a free pass in the realm of ideas. No person, because of the things they have done or said in the past, deserves to have their thoughts accepted without question. In fact, respecting someone’s ideas involves questioning them to see if they hold water. Good ideas deserve to be debated and questioned. What’s more, it’s the quality of a person’s logic that determines whether or not their questioning is good. The notion that the one who popularized some idea must grant someone “the right” to question them is absurd.

I also don’t mean to insinuate that any entire program doesn’t “work”. Anything will work given the right circumstances. But as I said, it’s not even about what “works”. “Does it work” is the wrong question! It’s about what is optimal. There is NO program or system that is perfect and we all have more to learn. What I’ve presented here is something I’ve learned and my intent is to share it so that others can improve their programs as well.

Some of my friends include speed work in their training. I don’t think it’s optimal, but they don’t take it personally. Conversely, there are things I do that they don’t think is optimal. I don’t take it personally either. We can discuss it like adults. Hopefully with good discussion, critical thinking, and careful review, we all get closer to the truth over time. I don’t expect that you, the reader, will change your mind on speed work immediately (though you might), but as a courtesy, just let what I’ve said here sink in for a few days. Maybe it causes you to question what you were previously doing. Maybe it doesn’t. Life goes on.

So why do people do it?
Powerlifting is a pretty simple sport. There is force and technique. Not much else plays a role. Speed work can contribute to hypertrophy, but it’s not ideal. So why do people seem to get gains from doing speed work?

First, it’s hard to say that speed work gave them the gains. These programming changes are almost never made in isolation, so it easily could have been some other aspect of training. It could have been the increase in frequency. Most lifters go from one heavy squat season a week to one heavy and one light session. In that case I would say that although speed work isn’t ideal, it’s a net win because frequency went up.

It can also help those who are chronically beat up. Since it typically involves lighter weight, it should cause less structural stress, so it can sometimes result in fewer injuries, which allows people to improve more over time. With that said, I think proper volume management and good general conditioning limits the need for this kind of thing for the vast majority of lifters out there.

And lastly, it’s a case of good, better, best. Speed work would likely produce results in someone if they were untrained enough. But that doesn’t mean it is ideal.
If you use speed work in your training, I encourage you to gradually migrate to something heavier. Don’t over-complicate it. Just gradually use heavier weights. Your prime work sets need to be at least an 8 RPE if not higher. No need to thank me — your future PR says it all.

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.

Customizing Your RPE Chart

E1RM-TABLE

Writing can be a difficult process, even for those without literacy issues! I know at least for me, I have all these ideas in my head and they all interrelate to one another. Writing is a process where I attempt to take those ideas, untangle them, and put them in a logical, readable form that makes an impact on the way people train or live. Because of the interrelatedness of different concepts – the sheer organic nature of athletic training – I often feel like I fall short in terms of getting my points across. That’s not a que for you to pity me – that gets us nowhere. It just means I continually try to improve what I write about.

Take for example the RPE Chart. In my book, The Reactive Training Manual, I discuss what the RPE chart is and how you use it. I also say that it is best if you customize the given RPE chart to fit yourself as an athlete. But that’s all I say. I don’t tell you how to go about that or anything. And as a result, I get the impression that very few people do any customizing to their RPE chart at all.

So what is a process-oriented guy like me to do about it? How about design a process that helps people fix this problem?

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Hold, Damn Grip!

Photo courtesy of 9for9media.com
Photo courtesy of 9for9media.com

Probably the most frustrating part of powerlifting is KNOWING in the marrow of your bones that you can do a task, then being unable to do it for some pain-in-the-ass detail. This could be an injury, a technical “tick”, or one of the most frustrating for me personally, a failing grip.

Dropping an otherwise easy deadlift due to grip issues is a special kind of suck. It’s an awful feeling that leaves many lifters looking at their hands in disbelief. It’s also incredibly stubborn. Many, many lifters have tried all kinds of crazy stuff to improve the grip. Almost all of it fails.

Stuff that just doesn’t get the job done
Reporting negative results is just as important as reporting successful trials. And boy, have we tried some things and failed some things!

There are a ton of gadgets out there that all promise to improve grip. And perhaps it’s a little misleading because there are so many different kinds of gripping strength and the hands are such complex organs. But one way or another, we tried a lot of them that did nothing. Crushers, fat bar work, active grippers (like Grip 4orce), rolling, etc… none of that helped me or my lifters.

Even the old wisdom of doing more double-overhand work didn’t help. In this idea, you would do double-overhand work (without a hook) until you couldn’t any longer. Then you’d switch to a mixed grip. Some even advocate extra double-overhand work in the form of rows and similar lifts. This too got us nowhere.

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Case Study: Laddie Gibson — Adapt Your Strategies to Crush PRs

IPF Masters World Champion and world record holder in the 83kg class (50 years old). Then comes back to set a PR in every lift and improve his total by 40kg at Raw Nationals a couple months later. What’s his secret?

When Laddie came to work with us at RTS back in February of 2015, he already had an extensive training history (since 1987). You can find out more about Laddie and his twin brother Troy – who is also a Masters World Champ and world record holder – on our Podcast. So our job at this point in Laddie’s career is to hone and peak rather than teach and develop. So with that unique position in mind, let’s discuss how we adapted Laddie’s training.

We used a similar training strategy for Laddie both in prep for his world-record-setting performance in Finland, and then again to exceed those marks a few months later at Raw Nationals. In June, his lifts were 220/170/245/635 (kilos of course). By October, he had improved beyond those marks to 230/180/265/675. That’s a 40kg (88 pounds) improvement on his (already world record) total in just over 3 months.

In the beginning of working with Laddie, we were simply looking to get established on a productive training regimen, so we opted for a 3-day-per-week training template. My thinking was that this provides a good starting point so we can avoid any potential recovery issues. If Laddie was recovering easily, we could just turn up the frequency. However if we started too high, there would be more steps in getting training stress back under control. When he responded quite well to this level of frequency, we kept it. This leaves another tool in our toolbox for later as well.

The driving force behind all of his strength development would be training of the competition lifts. The competition style squat, bench, and deadlift would be trained at least once per week, with more work targeting assistance and supplemental movements. Intensities for the contest lifts were kept fairly high. In the beginning of a training cycle, they would start about 80% and then gradually increase in waves up to 92-95%. The overall pattern of intensity was linear, but it came and went in waves.

All of Laddie’s training was done using an RPE system to auto-regulate the weight on the bar. This way, on good days he could use heavier weights. On bad days, he could reduce the weight to an appropriate level. His main lifts were trained by working up to an 8 RPE and repeating this load for multiple additional sets. The volumes I required from him were quite brutal, but recovery was managed via auto-regulation as well as the 3x frequency template (more on recovery later).

Laddie’s assistance work targeted the bottom of the squat and the bench – typical problem areas for raw powerlifters. We did very little assistance work for Laddie’s deadlift, which had a propensity to beat up his hips. For the squat, this meant lots of 2ct Pause Squats and Pin Squats. Laddie loved the pause squats saying, “I had never really done Pause Squats consistently. Pause Squats played a big role.” Well, maybe “loved” is the wrong word, but he definitely felt they made a big impact on his squatting performance. Squats with chains were done toward the end of his training cycles. For the bench, we used various pause lengths as well as pin pressing, touch-and-go benching, feet up bench, close grip benching, etc. Again, intensities stayed fairly high – there was less 80% stuff than for the main lift, but less 90%+ work too. RPE’s were again around 8 with lots of volume.

Supplemental movements were rotated and varied a lot more than other slots. For the lower body, lunges, SSB Squats, Good Mornings, more pause squats, and 303 Tempo squats were all included at various times for various periods. For the deadlift, lots of rows and some Stiff Leg Deadlifts were the bulk of the movement selections. When it came to benching it was Dips, DB Bench, and lots of close grip partial pressing (such as pin press and board press) to develop triceps strength. All movements were rotated regularly, but when trained, were done at a fairly high intensity (say 80% +/- 5%). RPE’s for these movements were typically higher (9 RPE) and volume was lower.

As we came into each peaking phase, the general intensity of all the work would rise just as you’d expect it to. But then we would also begin incorporating heavy-ish singles into his training. Some weeks it would be just x1 @8. Other weeks it would be x1 @8 and x1 @9. They were always followed by down sets afterward. This was done to provide a highly specific stimulus as we approached competition. It also helped Laddie hone his competition skills, practice commands, and in general focus on the coming contest.

When it comes to recovery, the volumes were managed in such a way that recovery was possible on most training weeks. But other weeks would be “high stress” weeks where we would intentionally do more volume than Laddie was able to tolerate. To balance this out, we planned deload weeks after every 3-4 week long training block. Laddie’s deadlift in particular seemed sensitive to this and needed some deloading. He is a sumo deadlifter, so all the volume that I required on the deadlift pushed his hips and adductors to the limit. As such, every three weeks or so, Laddie would skip sumo deadlifts, usually replacing them with conventional deadlifts. This allowed him to continue getting in some pulling practice without continuing to tax his hips and adductors.

Particularly when training for Raw Nationals, Laddie credits lots of his improved health and recovery to his daily stretching regimen. Every day (sometimes twice a day) he would stretch whatever seemed tight and sore for 15-30 minutes. Most times his focus seemed to be on the upper body – particularly chest and shoulders. Laddie told me, “This was the first time I was able to bench press with no shoulder pain at all. [Stretching] helped me with both [recovery and avoiding injuries]. This was the first time I had no major injuries.” This is huge – especially for a masters lifter!

As was mentioned earlier, the result of all this work that Laddie put in was a world-record setting performance at IPF Classic Worlds in Finland. Then only a few months later, he exceeded all of those marks by 40kg total at USAPL Raw Nationals in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

After Nationals, we’ve changed up Laddie’s training quite extensively in an effort to keep him healthy and strong. This short restoration phase will be followed up by more loading phases, but the strategy is ever-adapting. Future cycles should allow for better recovery and improved stress management so Laddie can continue to set World Records for years to come. Just like with all our lifters – Laddie’s training has been unique. The general principles are constant, but how they take shape into a training program is not.

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.

Long Term Planning for Powerlifting

Photo courtesy 9for9media.com
Photo courtesy 9for9media.com

For as long as I’ve been lifting weights (and probably a lot longer than that), “Long Term Planning” has been eschewed and neglected by powerlifters – especially the typical non-professional-coach type, but even by some prominent professional coaches. The thing is successful coaches see the benefits (and also the limitations) of long term planning, so they put it in its proper place – much to the benefit of their athletes.

I make it no secret that I greatly respect Norwegian Powerlifting coach Dietmar Wolf. In 2013, his most prominent lifter, Carl Yngvar Christiansen (CYC for short), placed 2nd at the IPF World Championships – only 12kg behind the winner. Now, by all accounts this is a fantastic performance, but some of CYC’s lifts looked quite easy. After the meet, there was quite a bit of discussion about, “why didn’t he go for it?” Someone had heard that CYC had a minor injury and the Norwegian coaches wanted to play it safe. Still some of my friends questioned the call saying, “When you’re there, you’ve gotta take the shot!”

The thing is I see where they are coming from, but I also know Dietmar Wolf a little bit having spoken with him on several occasions. I know that he likes to consider the long term view of things. His goal is to take the athlete to their genetic potential, which is a 10+ year vision, not a 10 minute vision. Lo and behold, after playing it safe at the 2013 championship (and avoiding injury), CYC came back in 2014 to crush the competition by 200kg, set a World Record Squat and Total, and also hit the highest Wilks of any lifter in the IPF. Score one for long term vision. Read more…

The RTS Generalized Intermediate Program

(C) Copyright 2015 Adam Palmer
Photo courtesy 9for9media.com

I get lots of people coming on the site asking for a program check. Actually thoroughly checking a program is an involved process and it usually requires more information than the poster supplies. What’s more, it turns out that “is this a good program” is actually a bad question. Yes, there’s science and some hard rules when it comes to planning training. But there’s also a lot of art to it. So posting a program and asking if it’s good is kind of like posting a picture of a painting and asking for a critique. You can critique some stuff, but how you paint isn’t going to be the same way I paint. Read more…

Learn To Grind

(C) Copyright 2015 Adam Palmer
Photo courtesy 9for9media.com

Have you ever noticed that most of the top level lifters have the ability to grind out heavy weights? Of course that’s not universally true, but most of them can really struggle through a lift and still come out on top. However, there are lots of other lifters who can’t grind to save their life. For these folks, when the weight hits the sticking point, it’s not only like hitting a brick wall – it’s like bouncing off of it. They hit the sticking point and immediately fail the lift. Now if you read the title of this article, it will come as no surprise to you that the ability to grind is something we can develop in ourselves and our training partners. Read more…

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