Technique happens in the training room, not the competition platform

it’s been a long time, but I’ve finally gotten back behind the keyboard and a little bit of extra time to empty my brain into the webosphere.

Today’s a quick insight to the perils of studying weightlifting through social media and the educational wonder/nightmare that is Youtube.

I already feel like I sound like an old man saying this, some would say I am, but I digress… the main point is not that the videos etc. on social media are bad, or in any way unrealistic; for the most part they’re pretty accurate.

There are videos that are completely ridiculous, and frankly technique that should only be on camera in the form of a blooper reel, but for this segment, i’m going to focus solely on the analysis of competitive weightlifters, top class performers at their sport; away from the weekend workout warriors or text book only teachers.

What is misleading when using top class performers; is basing technical analysis from a 1RM attempt. The weights seen on the platform are the ones used to win, the top end of an athlete’s ability; Ask yourself the question, how good is your technique above 95% of your best weights?

Only the absolute pinnacle of performance athletes maintain really good technique to their maximal lifts.These individuals are the exception to the rule, those that are truly great at their art; beyond which us mere mortals can hope or even strive to attain.

Lu Xiaojun, has impeccable technique, rarely flinching, and rarer still missing. He is one of the greatest examples of technical proficiency, skill mastery and consistency that the sport has ever seen; he is unfortunately in the significant minority.

 

This kind of consistency is the weightlifting equivalent of a blue moon, it happens so rarely and only a handful of generations will ever witness it.

That said, excellent technique, examples of movements worth study are abundant, most who wish to learn from, study and analyse these same athletes are simply looking in the wrong place.

How do the athletes prepare for competition, where is technique borne, honed and practiced at its absolute best?

The answer – The training hall, the warmup room. This small dark annex, mere feet from the biggest stage an athlete will ever grace; this is where analytical cameras should point. The awesome spectacle of the biggest weights on an Olympic stage, so fluidly moved by the best at their game is a sight for spectators, awe inspiring, motivating, and the end result of decisions made and battles won and lost in the training halls throughout years of hard training, sacrifice and physical and mental endurance.

There are countless videos analysing technique, studies and theories on movement skills, biomechanics, and even technical analysis taught, based on principles used when evaluating the technique of top class performers; all when their skill is performed at its absolute worst.

Move away from the lure of the spotlight and isolation of the main stage, cast your gaze, and your lens into the back room. The 50%’s the 75%’s 80%’s & 90%’s. The skill sharpening, Light loading and technical perfection of lifters doing what they do best. Smooth, but challenging weights that sail effortlessly, sub maximal attempts where every fibre of the body is working in unison, and before the weak link in a lifters strength or ability rears its head.

This is where the camera will capture the single best source of visual information. This is where those wishing to truly understand what it takes to lift, what it means to even be selected for the event, a competitor, a contender, can see the fluidity, skill and art that lifters strive for years to achieve.

The lessons learned may only be one small part of what it takes to lift, but when you watch it, when you see what lifters go through in the training hall, when skill, sharpness and proficiency are still on their agenda;

You see weightlifting at its purest, before the yearning, and overpowering desire to grab hold of a bar and rip its head off takes hold, and the physical and mental preparation of a lifter is tested to the limit.

There really is only one place to study technique, at the place it occurs at its absolute best. That only happens before the big stage, before the hot burning lights, and more often than not, before the audience ever knows you were even there…

Why I’m proud to lift like a girl

This week has been a good one, I’ve really enjoyed the numbers of women that have showed a sincere interest in taking up the sport. It surprises me how open, willing and eager they are to really test their strength, get stuck in and mix it up with the guys in the gym.

In typing this, there’s only one thing that surprised me more… and it’s that I still find this hard to believe.

In my last post I talked about the advent of crossfit, the absolute sledgehammer it took to the myths about women lifting weights, and sometimes I think that despite all the awesome people, especially women, I’ve met who relish the challenges, love the training and teach my stubborn ass a thing or two time and again; I’m still amazed by the forward thinking ones that escape the treadmill for a life of ever upward, stronger, faster and fitter.

I’ll not dwell on the positives of weightlifting for women, there’s a million reasons that weightlifting, or even certain aspects of resistance training are not only more beneficial than any other form of training, but that a lot of this is even more important to women.

I was devastated, that I was at a national championship event, almost 300 miles from home, and yet couldn’t make it to an osteoporosis charity event (round the corner from the competition venue), where 30 women lifted in excess of a combined 300,000Lb’s. This magnificent feat of strength was to promote the improvements on bone mineral density and reduction in serious afflictions like osteoporosis, resistance training, specifically weightlifting has to offer.

More importantly it involved several of Ireland’s finest examples of technical performance; all of which women.

Many in the gym have heard me harp on about – technique, technique, technique… – but when it comes right down to it, the best movers and shifters in the weightlifting world are the lightest, most efficient lifters there are. They have to be; they have to be that much better technically, as they do not have sheer size, strength or ignorance to power through weights like their heavier counterparts.

Thing is, when you look at the light weight classes, the ones that stand out to me most, are almost always the women’s classes.

The men’s events have excellent displays of technical ability, but as an awful generalisation I’m going to get a lot of abuse for, the women are simply, consistently, and continuously better throughout; More athletes, in more weight classes, performing excellent lifts, technically, and with a huge amount of weight on the line.

I’ve another piece in mind that’ll be with you soon, about where to look for technique, but that’s for another time.

Most lifters look at their class, maybe those around it, they know the best in their groups, best of all time… but I’m a coach. I’ve watched the pocket Hercules lift the only 500+ sinclair in history

I’ve watched in awe as Lu Xaiojun effortlessly breaks world records time and again. But the most breath-taking part was not simply the weight that was lifted, but just how it was lifted. It was fast, smooth, technically unbelievable. It is simply a master class in every aspect, and I’d highly recommend anyone watch it.

 

But more and more I found myself inspired by the technical prowess of the women’s weightlifting teams. The lightest groups are simply fantastic when it comes to the technical execution of the lifts. It is also where you see some exceptionally large weights being shifted by equally diminutive people. I mean this in no way as offensive, I’m barely 5”5 (1.65m) myself and lift at 69kg. I’m by no means the biggest lifter out there. But I do train a lot of guys, rugby players, 2m tall and counting, over 100kg, and their ability for strength, is only usually initially matched by their inflexibility, and lack of movement skills when they start.

Thing is those same light women, outlift the burly men in almost every case. It is not their size that’s important. Their weapon of choice is movement; Quick, explosive, fluid. A symphony of neuro- and biomechanics in action. It’s mesmerising, to see the bar and lifter seamlessly integrate into one, smooth amalgamation of speed, precision and strength.

The skill required is immense, and should those of greater stature not only harness, but fully utilise this potential, the weights lifted would be simply astounding. This is what I strive for in my own lifts. It is this that I hold highest above all other achievements. I can move, I can move well… and I can use these movements to achieve what onlookers see as impossible, until it’s done that is.

My lifts may not be exceptional, but to joe public, they’re numbers that are hard to get your head around, and exercises that are even harder to get your body around. When you tell them, there are women, my weight, lifting the same, in some cases more, jaws hit the floor.

There is no magic to it, simply a long time, honing, training and specifically targeting this aspect of performance; and it cannot be underestimated.

Resistance is important, training the correct muscle fibres to fire, in the right order, for the right result requires it. However, without the skill aspect of weightlifting, this simply wouldn’t happen.

Weightlifting differs from other strength sports in that the margin for error is so small.

In deadlift, it doesn’t matter if you lift with a round back, it’s still possible to lift the weight. I’m not saying this is the recommended approach by any means, I’m simply saying that it’s possible.

Even with mediocre technique, there is a significant amount that can be lifted in deadlifts, squats etc. This does not mean all powerlifters are poor technicians, quite the opposite, the best at their sport are technicians of their craft, no different than the best amongst any weightlifting populous.

What it means in very real terms, is that the difference in returns gained from technique in powerlifting, are nowhere near the returns gained for efficient and effective technique in weightlifting.

In weightlifting, say the snatch, the body moves from fully squatted, to fully extended (triple extension), to fully squatted (catch) to fully extended (recovery) all in under 1.5s.

The bar is moved overhead and caught half way through this process, stabalised overhead, in a window no bigger than the base of your feet to secure the combined centre of gravity of bar and lifter, before recovering to the standing position.

Thing is, if even the slightest bit of movement is off, the lift will fail. The bar has to constantly accelerate or it will not gain sufficient height, it has to be kept close to the body to effectively and efficiently add greatest acceleration to it, and this must happen throughout the lift. The lifter must pull hard enough to get the bar to sufficient height, before completely reversing their own trajectory, pulling under, to secure the bar in a full squat position, which must be positioned exactly under the point of the bar, that combines its centre of gravity with their own to ensure that the base is sufficient to support the lift, as well as maintaining a strong enough structure, with hip, knee, ankle, trunk, core, shoulder stabilisation, all taxed to their absolute limits, and working in 100% harmony.

In very real terms, what this means is that those with insufficient technique, simply cannot perform the lifts. Those with poor technique, simply can’t compare, or compete with those who can.

When a weightlifting coach says someone has poor technique, they may in fact be saying that they’re getting about 95% of the lift right. Problem is, due to the nature of the lifts, and to an extent the perfectionist nature of us mere mortals striving for them, 95% is simply not enough. It could easily be that even at 93% of perfect in the snatch, the lifter is still at risk of injury, due to major technical faults, such as a rounded back, which is immediately dangerous, or twisting to secure the bar overhead, which can lead to muscle imbalance and injury long term.

As weightlifters we are intimately familiar with the lifts, the experience gained in their pursuit cannot be underestimated. There is a unique understanding and appreciation of just what it is to lift that comes with time under the bar, in the gym, and in the eternal pursuit of excellence.

Striking that balance of strength and finesse is a lifelong challenge, never completed but thoroughly enjoyed. It is an amazing feeling, the weightlessness of the bar, that first time a lift feels almost effortless in its execution. It’s a feeling you can spend your life trying to recreate, and not feel bad that you couldn’t do twice. It is in itself euphoric when it happens, and one of the greatest reasons we hold our sport in such high regard. Only a weightlifter knows that feeling, the first time it happens, you’re done for. It is an affliction for perfection from which there is no return.

It explains why we get grumpy when we see it done badly; it is infuriating at times when there is simply no intent towards what is almost the definition of perfection when it comes to moving weights in a way that tests every physical and mental components of fitness; speed, power, strength, flexibility, balance, control, coordination, reaction times, concentration, state of mind, and so on. We want people to feel the joy we feel, and it’s not possible when it’s not done right.

After my previous post, I’ve heard the allegory that crossfit specialises in not specialising, this is why the technique is not the same. This I feel is untrue. Crossfit is a pursuit to be the best, same as any competitive pursuit, that’s why there are competitions and leagues. To have it said that avoiding spending time getting better at a very technical exercise, by not practicing technique because it’s not fitness is simply mind blowing. It’s a huge problem.

My basic opinion – If you’re going to incorporate it into your program: Do it right, no excuses!

Thankfully there are a massive amount who share that opinion and do not shy away from the fact that these movements require a lot more than a one day cert to qualify you to teach. This is hotly debated, even internally throughout crossfit.

I’m seriously lucky, all my interactions with the crossfit clubs I have worked with have been massively positive.

They display not only the key movement skills to perform, but also the unmistakable quality of a fantastic teacher/coach/mentor. They want to learn. All of them, the athletes, coaches, owners, everyone. They want to be better, they want to learn, and they’re all more than willing to ask for the help where they need it most.

I applaud this, I love this, it is one of the reasons my interaction, and subsequently view of crossfit as a whole is so positive. I don’t know the videos of the fails, the youtube comments…. I know the people; and frankly the people are great.

Anyway that is a digression to the previous post. This post is about one thing… the unbelievable women of weightlifting.

The pinnacle of those same components of fitness I mentioned earlier; the absolute best the sport has to offer.

The time dedicated to the skills, the programs, gruelling training and, until very recently, the isolation encountered means I have the utmost respect for the women who have perfected their art.

Until very recently, this was exclusively a mens only sport. Weightlifting is the oldest serving sport of the modern Olympics, and even so, the first women’s event actually took place in Sydney in 2000. It took the turn of the millennium to have inclusivity at the Olympic games, the absolute pinnacle of our sport.

To now sit back and see world record after world record tumble in the 2013 world championships, is a testament to the hard work, perseverance and dedication that has been invested. It’s not because they are women; but because, they not only lift incredible weights, but do so, with a technical ability to not only rival, but supersede their male competition.

In short, when I want to see how weightlifting should be done. It isn’t the 105+ men I look towards, jerking 260 and beyond; it is the lightest, most efficient, and to my mind significantly greater achievements of the lightest, efficient and most effective performers of our sport.

That’s what I strive towards, and why you’ll only ever see me smile if someone says, I lift like a girl.

Differential of inertia, the importance of pulling under the bar

This one is a topic for the physics lovers and those like myself who have spent far too much time thinking about the Olympic lifts, their movements and just what exactly is happening during a lift.

Let me just start off by stating that this article is a little bit of the science behind an often overlooked area, getting into that lovely full squat position and catching a lift under the bar.

Often times coaches, S&C instructors and even athletes are really caught up in the triple extension, getting the bar high enough to snatch or clean. This in itself is great, getting that powerful pull is absolutely crucial to a good lift, max weights and proper form; but it’s not where the exercise ends.

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A fine example of all of the above from the World Championships ©Neil Dougan 2011

If you’ve been at any of the coaching courses with me as a tutor you’ve probably heard me asking the question, “at what point does the lift finish” the vast majority of the time the answer I hear, is when the athlete is at rest with the bar overhead. For those same people I say what about practicing correctly setting it down and getting twice the amount of work from your lifts, but that’s for another article.

At this point of triple extension, a lot of beginner athletes take the foot off the gas, they think the hard work is done and drop under the bar, floating eloquently into a nice stable position with a comfortable weight.

I call Shenanigans…there’s so much more to be done… your lift isn’t finished yet!

I can almost hear the coaching cries [read excuses] ring out now; Hell we’re doing it for sport, we want good sprints, the triple extension is the most important part… and yes, for power generation that’s true.

Take this picture for example… lovely triple extension on the left leg – Hip, knee and ankle all opened out to drive powerfully and accelerate…

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Now look closer, the right leg is in triple flexion. Toe in dorsiflexion, hip flexor and hamstring all in concentric contraction. Both actions need to be performed fluidly, at speed and with as little lost effort as possible to maximise acceleration.

Nobody sprints with two straight legs after two steps, the sharp contraction of the iliopsoas (hip flexor) mimicked by the squat position, having received the bar, is essential for quick turn around and reutilisation of the limb, it is the second amortisation phase, the second stretch shortening powerful fast movement that is replicated time and again on the pitch, field, track, and yes… in the gym. Weightlifters, for you it’s actually just as, if not more important. If it’s not working at 100%, then nor are you. That 100kg snatch you were looking for when 95 sails into place… that’s only 5% guys and girls, it’s time to get efficient, it’s time to lift big.

This action, of getting quickly under the bar is where the physics comes into play. I use the physics because it so beautifully sums up why it is so important to actively pull under a bar rather than drop or flop; after all it’s the law… so it’s time to dust off the lifting shoes, it’s time to take on physics, and one of the biggest hurdles we face as lifters… Gravity.

The efficient lifter instinctively knows when to use gravity to their advantage; we’ll accelerate from standstill towards earth at 9.81 m/s², but why wait?

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Here at the 2011 world championships, we can see how little movement there is in the bar after the triple extension, but it still moves… it is moving under it’s own momentum at this stage, frame 3 shows the feet off the floor, therefore nothing to pull against to add height but empty space; or is there?

As Jennifer Aniston once said, here comes the science…

[Glossary:  M=Mass,  V=Final Velocity, U= Initial Velocity, F= Force, t= time]

The athlete is moving upwards, driving themselves up and taking the bar along for the ride, accelerating to max velocity a la frame 1. – They now have velocity… to make it simple but roughly accurate, lets call it 2m/s.

When calculating the change in inertia, or impulse Mv-Mu would be different for pulling under the bar, than an object at rest. Basically letting gravity do the work for you, slowing you to a stop, then accelerating you towards earth at 9.81ms² takes too long; bearing in mind… gravity’s doing this to the bar as well, the idea is to be under that bar when it starts plummeting to the ground.

The main difference here is the time it takes to get under the bar, which is directly affected by how much force you put into pulling under the bar once those toes of yours get a sniff of hang time leaving the floor.

If the athlete weighs 50kg (490n mass), reaches the top of their pull moving up at 2m’s and hits the bottom of their squat moving down at 2 m/s the change in speed is 4m/s or: (v-u)=4.

In the above frames, they are shot at 60 frames per second which means that it takes 4 frames to get from [V] to [U] which is 0.07 seconds to get under the bar… trust me when I say, this guy was really frickin quick

So if there is space under your feet, and only air around you, what exactly do you have to pull against? – the only object left is the bar.

The bar is travelling upwards under its own momentum at this stage, so what you in fact do by pulling against it is transfer your upward momentum [V] into the bar, increasing it’s velocity, reducing your own by creating downward impulse in your body. This gets the 2m/s speed under the bar or final velocity [U]

The harder you pull, the faster you decelerate, and therefore transfer more force, and upward momentum into the bar as a result. This is the differential of inertia – you defer your inertia into the bar by actively pulling against it like it was nailed to the damn floor. When those deodorant ads said men can’t help acting on impulse, I wonder if they knew the secret to epic lifts…

This means you accelerate down under the bar quicker, take less time to do it, and there is more upward force going into the bar as a result. All of which means… heavier weights!

Just in case there’s a few thinking… I’ve done the analysis, I have the figures: The bar doesn’t get any quicker after triple extension. This is true, but it will decelerate slower with an athlete pulling under the bar, the actual upward momentum gained by the bar during pull under is very minimal.

In any case, the bar is not what’s important in this equation, but the speed of the lifter, if they are under the bar much sooner, the bar has less time to come to rest and head earthbound under gravity, which means the lifter has a much better chance of snatching or cleaning that weight.

There is also an added benefit to this, the psychological one gained by teaching that this is an active part of lifting rather than an addendum to a clean or a snatch.

When the athlete has to focus on actively pulling under the bar then they’re more engaged, less relaxed and just that little bit sharper when it comes to performing the movements.

The action of pulling under the bar, even the language used, lets the lifter know that they are expected to maintain form, continue to lift until the bar is overhead, and not simply coast after Vmax/triple extension.

There are no thoughts of relaxation, or lesser effort, max effort must be maintained until the bar is secured overhead and successfully recovered.

This translates to faster athletes under the bar, more powerful contractions at the hips (great for sprinters and getting those muscles up to standard for good running mechanics) and more weight being lifted due to the increased efficiency of the lifter.

This minimises the distance the bar drops, lowering the force transferred into the lifter when it is caught as it is moving slower, and allows the lifter to again lift heavier as a result.

So why overlook this one small aspect when even small percentages play such a massive role at the high end of lifting.

The less scientific explanations is simply this;

The harder you pull under the bar once the feet leave the floor, the quicker your momentum is transferred into it, with more force, which gets you under the bar quicker, into a stronger position [psychological effect], and even has the added benefit of scraping that little bit of extra height into the bar.

No matter what way you look at it, the bar will be higher when you catch it, you’ll be under it quicker and therefore able to do heavier weights as a result.