Spreading the Iron Gospel – part 1

Like in any other sport or skilled activity, learning powerlifting involves certain stages. Sports learning is generally understood as a three stage process:  the cognitive, associative and autonomous stages.

The cognitive stage is where the individual recognizes the basic components of a certain skill or motor task. He must form a visual image of each component. The associative skill is what it says: the component parts are coherently put together to produce the motor task. The autonomous stage is that in which there is no conscious thought concerning the performance of each part nor its assembly into a task. That is when the task is proficiently performed and cognitive resources are free to engage in strategic actions (Fitts & Posner 1967).

The application of Fitts & Posner’s model to sports learning resulted in segmented approaches: motor tasks are broken down into parts and each one is introduced and practiced. On a second stage, the parts are gradually assembled to form a continuous set of movements and the final motor task.

Weightlifting – the closest we can get to powerlifting – is usually taught that way. First high pulls, then getting under and so on.

Here is the core problem in powerlifting learning: the powerlifts are the codified form of basic human movement patterns. Should we break them down into their component segments to teach them, as in mainstream sports teaching? Is there a universal motor learning mechanism that applies to teaching all sports?

I believe no coach would demonstrate a sequence of strikes and defenses in boxing or fencing and then hand the beginner the gloves or the weapon and say : “your turn”. Too many things happened in that motor task for the beginner to understand, since he still lacks the cognitive tools for that. The extreme opposite would be to break it all down into the simplest possible movements and practice them.

There is controversy involving teaching strategies for each sport, but the “your turn” strategy is hardly considered.

In powerlifting, however, deliberately or not, the lifts are learned holistically. The reason is not necessarily the lack of methodological approaches out there. The reason is that this is the most natural and effective approach.

That does not mean that the learning progression doesn’t take place along the lines observed for all other forms of skill learning: an initial cognitive stage in which every movement is thought thoroughly up to one where most technical items are automated and the lifter may focus on issues to be improved.

Most coaches will start the same way: demonstrate a lift and let the beginner do it.

After that, the number of ways to teach the lifts is almost as large as the number of coaches teaching them.

Mine is not better or worse than anybody else’s: it is the way I found more effective both in terms of combining technical and theoretical content with execution and enabling practitioners to progress smoothly towards proficiency.

Each of the four levels on table 1 is taught separately, during a whole period (either a day or a weekend). This showed to be more effective even when there could be available time to teach two levels on the same day. Apparently, letting students “sleep over the subject” allows for much better acquisition of new skills the next day.


Table 1 – Levels of powerlifting learning

Level Title Conceptual content Practice
1 Powerlifting level 1: The basic foundations of Strength Conceptual basis and typology of strengthStrength in the context of functional properties, fitness, conditioning and health

Introduction to the powerlifts

– basic kinesiological characteristics

– the settup

– introduction to motor segments (liftoff, transition of muscle chain dominance, lockout)

– eccentric and concentric actions in each lift

Divided in two parts for each powerlift:1. General “it’s your turn” part, where each student’s settup, stance and grip is analyzed according to conceptual elements previously introduced

2. Coming back to the bar with specific tasks for each lift, like observing the eccentric phase, trying stance options and adding weight

2 Powerlifting level 2: Movement segmentation and accessory exercises (partials and other barbell exercises) The concept of transfer in training;The role of assistance exercises for powerlifters and non-powerlifters (injury recovery, other sports, general public)

The concept of intensity, maximal strength and supra maximal strength exercises

Introduction to the assistance exercises:

– front and overhead squats

– deads and paused lifts

– lockouts and static holds

Each lift is divided in stations and the class is divided in groups of 2-5 students/stationSquat: 1. overheads and front squats; 2. deads; 3. paused; Lockouts and static holds

Bench press: 1. paused; 2. deads; 3. lockouts and static holds; 4. military press

Deadlift: 1. snatch-grip deadlift; 2. deficit deadlift; 3. lockouts and static holds



3 Powerlifting level 3: Strength and stability: accessory exercises (with equipment: bands, chains, boards, etc) The concept of stability; the evolutionary history of bipedalism and core stability;Stability and power and strength output

Concepts involving stability: proprioception, intra-muscular coordination, etc

Introduction to assistance exercises with equipment:

– chains

– bands

– bamboo bars

– boards

Each lift is divided in stations and the class is divided in groups of 2-5 students/stationSquat: 1. bands; 2. chains; 3. unstable bar (KBs hanging from bands);

Bench press: 1. bands, 2.  bands plus hanging weight; 3. chains; 3. boards

Deadlift: 1. bands; 2. chains

4 Powerlifting level 4: Periodization Introduction to the General Adaptation Theory, supercompensation and inhibition;Physiological aspects of supercompensation and inhibition: acute and chronic endocrine and neural responses

Underperformance syndromes: the controversy about overtraining

Introduction to the main periodization schools

“How to’s”  in periodization: building a macrocycle structure; identifying the focus of each block or cycle; how to determine intensity and training load

The practical class consists of an exercise where each group of students must develop a periodization strategy to a hypothetical athlete. Students have two hours to develop their program, after which each group exposes it to the class and it is discussed.


Besides this sequence that was constructed in a more linear way, we have created a separate course in which we teach basic barbell exercises and focus the theoretical part on the concept of strength and muscle hypertrophy.


FITTS, P.M. and POSNER, M.I. (1967) Human performance. Oxford, England: Brooks and Cole

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