Adopting a Constraints-Led Approach for Strength and Conditioning: Applications to Teaching the Olympic Lifts

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While preparing athletes for their sports it is important to not only develop the physical tools required to satisfy the demands of their activities but to also consider how people are moving during training. In addition to improving maximum strength, conditioning, speed, and so on, the job of the strength coach is to also teach movement skills to their athletes. It’s been shown that interventions designed with a movement & fitness oriented approach increase fitness to a similar extent as programs focused solely on developing fitness, but also result in positive changes in movement behaviours that transfer to other activities (6). 

Recognizing the importance of how athletes move (e.g., maintaining knee alignment) is one thing, but to effectively teach these movement skills is an entirely different challenge. Although there are several prevailing motor control theories that coaches can use as a foundation to teach their athletes movement skills, the Constraints-Led Approach is one that provides a useful foundation to describe the emergence of coordination patterns in athletes, as well as how coaches can facilitate the learning of these patterns. 

In this article, I will outline the Constraints-Led Approach and its applications in two main sections. In the first section, I briefly lay the groundwork for what the Constraints-Led Approach is and how it may change coaches’ perspectives of teaching movement skills in the weight room. Then, an example of applying the Constraints-Led Approach for teaching the Olympic lifts will be outlined. The general principles of applying this approach to the Olympic lifts can be adopted for any other movement skills that coaches need to teach their athletes in the gym. 

What is the CLA? 

The theoretical underpinnings of the Constraints-Led Approach  (CLA) has roots in both Dynamical Systems Theory (DST) of motor control as well as Ecological Psychology (both of which I’ve outlined in more detail in the previously highlighted text). Briefly, DST states that human movement is the result of the self-organization of various interacting subsystems (e.g. musculoskeletal system, nervous system, circulatory system, etc.), which are shaped by various task, environmental, and personal constraints (10). In the context of human movement, ecological psychology emphasizes that coordination is best understood at the organism-environment level, and that (directly perceived) information from the environment provides affordances for action. Action, in turn, provides the opportunity to perceive more information which will shape the emergence of future action, and so on and so forth (i.e., perception and action are intertwined and should not be thought of as separate processes). Together, the CLA provides an approach to understanding how athletes organize functional and flexible behaviors in a variety of contexts, as well as how coaches can exploit this process of self-organization under constraints to structure training sessions and facilitate the acquisition of motor skills (e.g., design of tasks, types, and frequencies of feedback). 

One of the implications of adopting a CLA is that due to inherent movement variability that exists within and between people, tasks, and environments, there is no single “correct” technique (3) and perhaps only common biomechanical principles that athletes need to learn (e.g., expert performers commonly display different techniques when performing the same task (7)). Therefore, the goal of coaching under the CLA is to guide athletes through an exploratory process in which they learn to harness their inherent movement variability and acquire robust, adaptable solutions for these movement problems. This is arguably not only a more effective approach for athletes to “learn” these skills (as we will outline in future sections), but it will also allow them to transfer these fundamental movement patterns to a wider array of scenarios in their sport. This is not to de-emphasize the importance of biomechanical principles and ensuring that certain key features are adhered to (e.g., maintaining a straight back, knees in line, etc.). Rather, it is to highlight the importance of allowing athletes the opportunity for exploration during training to maximize skill development and transfer outside of the gym environment. 

Adopting this CLA framework may nudge coaches into a slightly different direction with regards to their coaching philosophy. Rather than the coach being the instructor and head of the training session, the CLA would emphasize that coaches should transition to the role of a facilitator, where a more “hands-off” approach is used.  This was put wonderfully in a book by Keith Davids, Chris Button, and Simon Bennet (3), where they outline that the coach should play the role of a gardener. Rather than telling the flower when and how to bloom, the gardener is responsible for creating an environment that facilitates the emergence of a flower. Likewise, the role of the strength and conditioning coach under the CLA is not to provide the athlete with the exact technique of what to move and when to move it, but to facilitate their discovery of coordination strategies through the modulation of various task and environmental constraints along with their ever-changing personal constraints. 

How can the CLA be Applied in Practice? 

Given the particularly complex nature of the Olympic lifts, it can be quite difficult for coaches to “explain” all the technical components without overloading the athlete with information. Given that Olympic lifts are used in a variety of training and testing programs for athletes, they are important movement skills for athletes to develop. These characteristics make it a good candidate for utilizing the CLA to teach these tasks. Before jumping straight into the details of applying the CLA, understanding its differences in comparison to other traditional teaching methods for the Olympic lifts will actually make it much clearer how to utilize it in practice. 

Traditional Approaches vs Constraints-Led Approach for Teaching the Olympic Lifts 

Traditional approaches to teaching the Olympic lifts have relied heavily on internal cues and providing the athletes with great detail of the “correct” way to perform the lifts. In a popular book on teaching Olympic weightlifting, the authors say: “we can instruct the athlete to maintain a more upright posture, actively pull the barbell in towards the body with the lats, or to direct the elbows up and to the sides” (pg. 86) (4). Furthermore, it’s been highlighted that “the critical point to be emphasized to the athlete in the arm pull is to concentrate on elevating the elbows high and to the side instead of elevating the bar. In all movements, it is essential to emphasize the movement of body parts, rather than the movement of the bar” (p.36) (12) (quotations were originally outlined in the introduction of a study by Schutts et al. (11).  

It is also common for coaches to break the lifts into “parts” and eventually stitch them back together. For example, the coach might teach the power clean by splitting the first, second, and third pulls into different parts, such as a clean pull and a hang power clean, with the purpose of eventually stitching them back together into the complete lift. However, part practice performed in this manner has been heavily criticized in the motor control literature (5). 

The main difference between the traditional methods of teaching the Olympic lifts and the CLA is that the CLA does not provide athletes with specific details regarding how they should be moving or what the “correct” technique should be during the Olympic lift. I really want to emphasize this point again before moving further. Although many coaches may be familiar with the benefits of adopting an external focus of attention (e.g., “concentrate on moving the barbell up and rapidly”) vs an internal focus of attention (e.g., “concentrate on moving your elbows up and to the side rapidly”) (11), the CLA specifically does not tell athletes what the correct technique should be. This is independent of getting the athlete to adopt an internal vs external focus of attention when performing the lift. For example, by instructing the athlete on how to move the barbell they may adopt an external focus of attention, but you are now telling them what the “correct” technique should be. Using the CLA, the coach is responsible for organizing a training environment that facilitates the athlete’s self-organization to find a movement solution corresponding to an effective Olympic lift. They are not responsible for explaining how the lift should be coordinated. It is critical that during the learning process the coach creates an environment that emphasizes specific perceptual information for the athlete so they can “find” their own technique under a myriad of constraints. This is specifically what it meant in the previous section for the coach to be the gardener that facilitates the emergence of the flower rather than telling it when and how to bloom. 

Specific Examples of Applying the Constraints-Led Approach to the Power Clean 

Two questions hopefully jump out immediately: 1) what are some strategies to adopt the CLA to teach athletes the Olympic lifts, and 2) how effective are they? One study had used three different constraints depending on the biomechanical limitation that the athlete demonstrated during a power clean, with all three methods proving to be highly effective in changing movement behaviours (13). Each constraint was used to “nudge” athletes out of their current coordination tendencies and into a new coordination pattern that would facilitate greater performance of the lift. The constraints were only applied during warm-up sets throughout the training program (which consisted of 10 sessions). In each case, athletes were not explicitly told how they should be performing the lifts, nor were they provided with any other verbal instruction. 

For athletes that demonstrated excessive hipping/looping of the bar away from the body, agility poles were placed in front of the barbell (Figure 1). This change in the environment nudged the athlete to keep the bar closer to their body while performing the clean to avoid making contact with the agility poles. They found that the average distance of the barbell away from the body was reduced from 17cm to 6cm following the intervention. 

Figure 1. Constraint for power clean using agility poles. Picture adapted from: Verhoeff, W., Millar, S.K. and Oldham, T., 2018. Constraints-led approach to coaching the power clean. ISBS Proceedings Archive, 36(1), p.1036. (13). 

For athletes that did not demonstrate a straight, rearward bar path from the floor to the hip (and eventually have the bar make contact with the thighs), chalk was placed on the barbell and athletes were told they needed to leave chalk on their thighs when performing the lift (Figure 2). This was done to encourage a rearward bar trajectory off the floor and to ensure that the hips contacted the thighs at the top of the second pull. In this case, the barbell’s rearward displacement changed from 0.82cm to 7.14cm following the intervention. 

Figure 2. Constraint for power clean using chalk on thighs. Picture adapted from: Verhoeff, W., Millar, S.K. and Oldham, T., 2018. Constraints-led approach to coaching the power clean. ISBS Proceedings Archive, 36(1), p.1036. (13). 

In cases where athletes jumped forwards upon triple extension (i.e., the timing between the commonly phrased second and third pulls), an 8cm cliff was placed in front of participants (Figure 3). This constraint, as you can imagine, nudged participants to avoid jumping forward. It was found that the direction of the jump changed by approximately 4cm backwards following the intervention. 

Figure 3. Constraint for power clean using 8cm cliff. Picture adapted from: Verhoeff, W., Millar, S.K. and Oldham, T., 2018. Constraints-led approach to coaching the power clean. ISBS Proceedings Archive, 36(1), p.1036. (13). 

In another paper by the same research group, a variety of other constraints are proposed that coaches can use to teach the Olympic lifts (14). Although there are several proposed strategies for adopting the CLA with the Olympic lifts depending on the biomechanical limitations of an athlete’s technique, there is unfortunately limited data that exists specifically comparing the learning process of athletes when adopting the CLA versus other learning strategies. For now, much of the proposed benefits come from the theory outlined in the previous section and research assessing other sports skills (e.g., baseball batting (8), interceptive actions (2), and soccer tactics (9). 

General Principles of Adopting the Constraints-Led Approach 

Although only three specific examples of constraints were outlined earlier in this section as to how the CLA can be applied to coaching the Olympic lifts, I want to leave you with three general “guiding principles” so you can expand upon using the CLA with your athletes with other movement skills. These principles are: 

  1. Do not “explain” correct technique to athletes. Guide them (using various constraints) to find appropriate movement solutions, 
  2. Constraints should be selected such that certain perceptual information is emphasized for the athlete, but the content of perceptual information is not actually changed. For example, splitting the power clean into different parts would change the perceptual information available to the athlete in each subsequent part, but using an 8cm platform to discourage a forward hop while performing the lift would instead emphasize certain perceptual information over others, and 
  3. Take a step back and limit the verbal feedback provided for athletes during the learning process. The goal is to allow the athlete an opportunity to explore different solutions in the perceptual-motor landscape and become attuned to various sources of information. Sometimes the athlete may look “ugly” in the gym and this will likely reduce short-term performance, but long-term learning and skill development will be improved as a result (1,3). Of course, some verbal instruction will always be required (especially when first teaching athletes the lifts), but as a coach you are guiding athletes to actively extract relevant information from the environment, not making them passively understand what you think good technique would be. 

Keeping these basic principles in mind will help you design your own constraints for not only the Olympic lifts, but any other foundational movement skill in the gym that you wish your athlete to develop. As the teaching of movement skills is a critical component of the Strength and Conditioning Coach’s job, the CLA can be a powerful framework to facilitate the holistic development of the athlete. 

In future articles, I plan to highlight in more detail how training programs can be organized using the CLA, the role of verbal guidance as informational constraints, and how to implement observational learning (i.e., demonstrating examples of the task to the athlete) using other fundamental movement skills from the gym. 

Author Bio 

Steven Hirsch, MSc, CSCS, is a PhD Student at the University of Toronto. In addition to his studies and work as a strength and conditioning coach, Steven has competed in both Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting. Steven created MVMT SCI as an online platform for disseminating human movement science for researchers and practitioners. Find out more about Steven on his personal website


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